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Commissioner pours scorn on internet freedom law

US Bill stuck in mud, European copycat trundles on

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New EU laws to protect freedom on the internet and force ISPs to stand up to authoritarian regimes are "unnecessary" and proposed penalties are "heavy", EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding told the European Parliament this week.

"We should not put European companies in an invidious position where their choice appears to be to break the law or leave the market to more unscrupulous operators," Reding argued. "Our goal should be to find ways to allow operators and service providers to respect human rights without doing either."

This is an important contribution to a debate that has been rumbling on since 2007, when the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) was introduced to the US House of Representatives. After a preamble that makes much of the threat to freedom posed by censorship under authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran and China, it asserts: "It shall be the policy of the United States to promote as a fundamental component of foreign policy the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".

This was echoed last July when Dutch MEP Jules Maaten introduced a similar proposal - the EU GOFA - into the European Parliament. He said: "Europe should promote freedom of speech as the basis of the internet. We need to create more transparency surrounding the involvement of European internet companies in online censorship. Human rights need also to be protected online through legislation that contains sanctions".

Critics of this approach have noted two problems both with the US GOFA and the EU version. First is the age-old argument that one man’s freedom is another man’s political correctness. Whilst the US take on freedom has its strong advocates around the globe, it also has its detractors - most notably amongst those who see it as little more than a fig leaf for advancing US commercial interests. The US GOFA would be limited to "the peaceful expression of political, religious or dissenting views", which is as elastic as the judiciary wish to make it.

The danger of penalising companies for going along with local values is that it only works as long as your own values have near 100 per cent buy-in. Otherwise, this approach merely opens the door to tit-for-tat evangelism with other countries ordering their own ISPs to push their values into the western world.

Second is the argument advanced by Commissioner Reding that a too legalistic approach would place burdens on conscientious companies that would simply be ignored by the less conscientious. In effect, bad practice would drive out the good.

Reding noted that the US State Department and Department of Justice were cautious about the possible unforeseen consequences of the GOFA, even in democratic countries in western Europe. Instead, she supported calls by US companies for a code of conduct setting out minimum corporate standards related to internet freedom and the channelling of EU money towards research and development of anti-censorship software.

Ironically, whilst the EU GOFA is now being actively debated in Europe, the US Bill that gave rise to this debate appears to be stuck in committee and to have made no significant progress since it was published. ®

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