Holes in the Net

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 June, 2017
Editorial: 104
Fecha de publicación original: 27 enero, 1998

Saintly words and cat claws

The suppression of the Communications Decency Law (CDA) as unconstitutional in the US has supposed a change of government strategy on how to control the Internet, both in the US and in Europe. As we said in the previous editorial, instead of applying the stick of the law, they are now employing the carrot of agreements (without leaving off the use of the stick when the occasion calls for it). What, at first, seemed to be a step in the right direction, might turn into a minefield if we take into account the interlocutors and the setting in which they operate. The importance of these new political strategies is shifting to Internet Service Providers (ISP) to the detriment of internauts themselves. While not abandoning, of course, cyberspace culture terminology and still calling it self-regulation. Or, to be more precise, “democratic self-regulation”.

Emilio Fernández – www.fernandezarte.com – @emiliofernandez.arte

Words, like weapons, are the devil’s own, and that’s why things turn out the way they do. When government tried to intervene in the content of the Internet “manu militari”, there was –and is– a great outcry from internauts for a vote of confidence in their ability to control the development of the Net and establish limits in more conflictive areas, especially in that of child pornography, which receives such widespread press. But the official agenda does not stop there. When they wish to intervene, the real reasons are never explained, instead, the ones that are given are those that arouse the the most social consensus to justify intervention. In this case, the list begins with organised crime and ends with the flow of capital from money laundering. In the middle, lies everything from attacks on intellectual property rights to sex in all its digital varieties. Matters of far too great importance to be left just in the hands of cyberspace inhabitants with good intentions above all, if the name of the game is to give digital relations a commercial stamp, which puts security centre stage. And, if there is somebody around who knows a thing or two about security, say the governments, it is them. After all, they spend juicy portions of their budgets on it.

Well then, if control has to be maintained through agreements, the digital service industry, in particular ISPs are in the best position to do it. And so, it is to them that official attention has turned. Self-regulation has to start with the ability of these private companies to keep order among their clients. This is what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe’s case, in addition, the situation is made even worse, from our point of view, by the limited institutional presence of internauts on the Net. While over in the States organisations have arisen with lengthy pedigrees in the defence of civil rights, freedom of speech and the right to privacy thus bringing them into direct conflict with the National Security Agency, the FBI, Congress and the White House, in Europe the landscape is almost a wilderness in this regard. We haven’t been able to produce the democratic bodies which might represent us, even on such a basic level as deciding what our rights are let alone how to defend ourselves against the wave of self-regulation that is swamping us.

This political consensus between the ISPs and the authorities has up to now taken the form of three options: voluntary filters, hotlines and institutional agreements (lurking in the wings is digital labelling, which we will discuss next week). In the first case, the most conspicuous example is the PICS, a program that filters webs with certain language or material so that children cannot see them. Recent field work done by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) demonstrates that if industry is given a finger they take the whole arm. Many filters even deny access to the Red Cross in the US, possibly because it contains information on AIDS and that means sex. US internauts have strongly protested against these policies, but in Europe there has not been a similar response. On our continent hotlines have been explored. These have taken three forms. In Holland one made up of ISPs and internauts was started. It’s job was to warn authors that their material could be contravening the law. If they persisted in maintaining this on the Net, the authorities were notified. This procedure became flawed very quickly as internaut presence very soon took a back seat.

In Great Britain and Germany, under pressure from the police and judges respectively, ISPs under the auspices of a Foundation, in the case of GB, and on the other, by a private association, displayed a worrying propensity for heeding the petitions of the authorities for the suppression of bothersome pages. British ISPs agreed to remove conflictive content without granting the users the right to defend themselves. The ISPs only option was to comply with the authorities or lose business by facing possible court cases whose corresponding bad publicity might associate them with harbouring child pornography and other horrors. Given the lack of civil organisations to protect them from these attacks on the freedom of expression and the right to interactivity, when it came to making decisions, it was, as one would expect, the volume of business that counted more, an area where the rights of others don’t usually bear much importance.

These experiences seem to have encouraged the European Union, which in a recent meeting with people from the world of the Nets proposed the creation of a European association of ISPs, EUROISPA. In other words, a valid interlocutor for putting an efficient self-regulation of content into practice on the scale of the whole community. As too often happens, the EU decided to start building the roof of the house first and promote control of the Net through action from above. Another case of their worrying lack of faith in the ability of users to develop policies themselves through their own organisations. The truth is that these, where they do exist, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (whose Spanish edition FrEE, publishes an excellent news bulletin on this subject) are still too weak to change the course of events. However, this is where the heart of the matter lies. If these organisations aren’t established with the sufficient social support of the internaut community, the future of the Internet will be compromised to a large extent by “democratic” alliances between governments and ISPs.