Last month, we asked you what you thought Europe’s digital future might look like. We spoke with Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding about her proposed new data protection legislation, and got some reactions from MEPs and some of the companies affected (such as Facebook). The question of “internet regulation” is certainly a pressing one right now, with debates about new laws currently taking place in the US (e.g. SOPA and PIPA), the EU (e.g. the proposed data protection rules) and internationally (e.g. ACTA).
Catalin-Alexandru left a comment arguing that Europe’s digital future looked “very grim because ACTA was signed with no debate [whatsoever].” ACTA (the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”) is an attempt to create an international legal framework to regulate intellectual property rights, including patents, anti-counterfeiting and online copyright infringement. We spoke to Ante Wessels, analyst for the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) and asked him what he thought of ACTA:
One of the really interesting things is that the US will not ratify ACTA, while they are asking Europe to ratify it. So, Europe will be bound by ACTA while the United States is not. And that’s a very dangerous precedent. How many more agreements like this will there be? Even if it were an agreement that didn’t have any impact, you should not accept that principle. But ACTA does go beyond [EU law] – and there are things that will limit our competitiveness compared to the US.
ACTA would award damages above the [economic loss suffered by the right holder and would have] a chilling effect on competition. It will make the EU less flexible to solve problems. With patents and copyright, they’re quite intrusive right now. The scope is getting bigger and bigger, the accepted limitations are quite narrow.
There are so many more issues at stake [than just internet piracy]. When you limit competition, you can really hamper innovation. What’s more important: the entertainment industry or green innovation? If, with climate change, the worst-case scenario turns out to be true, then green innovation and diffusion of technology is a thousand times more important.
The negotiations around ACTA are ongoing and, despite being signed by several countries (almost entirely countries in the developed world), it has yet to be ratified and brought into law by anyone.
We also had comments sent in from Petrescu and Christos, both of whom expressed concern about the use of internet regulation to control freedom of speech. This has been one of the primary concerns with much of the proposed anti-piracy legislation (including SOPA, PIPA and ACTA) – but it’s also an issue that has come up in relation to the EU’s proposed data protection rules. At the Forum Europe event we covered last year, we heard from a BBC representative who questioned whether the “right to be forgotten” (i.e. the proposed new EU rule that would allow users to request online services remove their public data) was in conflict with everybody else’s “right to remember”. We spoke to Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer for EU Affairs, Ron Zink, and asked him for a comment:
Of course, data protection and intellectual property rights are just one aspect of “internet regulation”. There is also a security dimension to cyberspace, which is rapidly growing in importance. In cyberspace, the line between criminal hackers and government intelligence agencies can sometimes appear blurred; see, for example, the Stuxnet worm that targeted computers related to the Iranian nuclear programme in 2011. A recent Security and Defence Agenda (SDA) report suggests that EU countries are generally quite well-equipped to defend themselves against cyber-attacks, but do we need better rules to determine what happens if a state is behind a cyber-attack on another state? We recently spoke to NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea and asked him what he thought:
Which raises a question that goes right to the heart of the debate on internet regulation: should countries approach the problem separately and adopt rules unilaterally (even if they affect users globally), or should states work together – perhaps within the framework of the United Nations – to come up with a joint solution? Again, we put this question to Jamie Shea:
Finally, perhaps we need to take a step back from this debate and see it from a different angle. Rather than asking “should we regulate the internet”, perhaps a better question might be “CAN we regulate the internet”? Even if ACTA, SOPA, PIPA and the rest of the alphabet-soup of rules and laws are passed, will technology just race ahead and leave them all outdated? Even China, who has invested more in internet surveillance technology than perhaps any state, is unable to exert complete control over its cyberspace.
What do YOU think? Should the EU regulate the internet? Should “cyber-governance” be handled internationally at the level of the United Nations? Or should there be no attempts to regulate the internet at all, as it risks infringing upon freedom of speech and expression? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.