Saving the open Internet requires protecting the rights of its users
By Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament and member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs
Technological developments and the open Internet have led to revolutionary changes and the potential of emancipating individuals, bottom up. But increasingly technological possibilities also put the spotlight back on top down responsibilities. They prompt serious questions about power, governance and fundamental freedoms.
Policies are lagging behind in ensuring a relevant regulatory framework. While over-regulation should not be desired, we need more robust mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of Internet users. Governments but also companies need to be accountable. Unchecked power, whether in the market or in the restriction of the rights and freedoms of people risk destroying the opportunities that the open Internet brings all over the world. We need to find global solutions to ensure freedom and security are not zero-sum.
Whilst in free societies, governments bear the prime responsibility to ensure security and to guarantee rights and freedoms, the risk of eroding freedom under the banner of security is eminent and challenges the open Internet as such.
Both companies and governments play a key role. The basic platforms citizens use for free expression and access to information are more than ever inextricably linked with public authority and questions around trust and security. Whether it is mass censorship in China or Iran, the boundless surveillance by the United States government or the opaque trade in software vulnerabilities and other digital arms, the individual user is facing new risks most people can hardly oversee. In a globally connected world checks and control of power should also be cross-border.
Without prejudice to any legitimate legal consideration the Snowden and Wiki leaks have undeniably been instrumental for the current debate on digital freedoms and show the need for clear rules on protection of whistle-blowers. They have revealed the extent to which the public value and the public interest have come under pressure from governments and companies alike.
Although governments are entrusted with national security and defense policy they increasingly rely on corporate infrastructures to execute these responsibilities. The secret snooping in databases of US data companies is perhaps the most telling example.
The creation of national Internets, or intranets, is gaining renewed momentum only after proposals to that end were curbed during the 2012 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meeting in Dubai. Germany now seeks a role for the UN in protecting privacy online, European politicians call for a ‘European online cloud’ and Brazil is working on a national email-service. As understandable as these responses to the NSA revelations may be, the known examples of countries that have nationalized internet should serve as a deterrent more than an example.
We need to be very wary of the looming balkanization of the Internet, which because of its very open nature and borderlessness became a powerful agent of change and progress. An open internet also implies its objectivity or neutrality. Indiscriminate access is key. So-called net neutrality should be codified in laws all over the world and the EU should set the right example.
But more than technical frameworks, the Internet user should be protected, anywhere in the world. This means rule of law principles should translate to the online and digital environments. Restrictions to freedom online can only be legitimate in well-defined cases, according to transparent criteria and provided that judicial oversight is guaranteed. We should focus on these criteria and the respective role governments and companies play. It is high time for a fact-based and transparent debate. I trust the EU and OSCE will play a key role in that process.