We’ve been discussing the issue of internet regulation in some depth on Debating Europe (see previous posts here, here and here). There’s a lot of interest around this topic, with a Wikipedia black-out against SOPA last month and protests in several European countries just this weekend against ACTA (an international anti-counterfeiting agreement). In our comments, there has been almost unanimous agreement that the EU should not be involved in regulating the internet (and our Facebook poll on the subject had similar results).
Broadly speaking, the new internet rules currently being debated by governments can be divided into two camps. Firstly, there are agreements like ACTA designed to prevent the illegal downloading of music, films, books, computer games, etc. One of our commenters, Ozcan, left a comment arguing that “nobody wants to pay for anything anymore [and] that is a very bad thing. Governments should protect our [property].“
The second kind of legislation is designed to protect citizens (and their personal data) from some of the dangers they may face online; both from internet criminals and from unethical corporations abusing their data. The EU’s draft data protection regulation falls into this second camp. Some of our users, however, argue that individuals should be responsible for what they upload online, not governments. Alex, for example, argues that governments “can start with better computer-literacy classes for both youth and adults, [teaching people] that there aren’t Nigerian princes that randomly [find] you and want to give you 10 million pounds.”
We had a comment sent in along similar lines from PJ, arguing that “no-one should be attempting to regulate or control the internet but there are laws and, if broken, normal processes should apply. As for personal data, any data provided is totally voluntary.“ Nikolai, meanwhile, left a comment saying “I am an adult and do not need nannying by legislators who probably know far less than I do about the Internet.“ Is such a laissez-faire approach to internet regulation really sensible, though? We heard similar arguments made about financial markets before the 2008 crisis.
We recently spoke to Prof. Christopher Millard, Professor of Privacy and Information Law at Queen Mary at the University of London, and asked him if he had any sympathy with the argument that it is the individual’s responsibility to keep their data safe:
On the other hand, Professor Millard also argued against the idea that the internet is “unregulable” because technology simply moves too quickly. You can see his response to that argument in the video below.
Last year, we also interviewed Richard Allan – Facebook’s director of policy in Europe – and raised some of these issues with him. We asked him how “Individual-to-individual” dispute resolution mechanisms might work to resolve disagreements online without needing to involving government intervention.
We also recently spoke to Professor Martin Selmayr, Head of Cabinet of Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission and the EU Commissioner responsible for drafting the data-protection legislation. We raised a criticism with him that had been sent in by several readers: do legislators really understand the technology they are trying to regulate? Can the internet really be “regulated” and will the proposals actually have any practical impact?
Finally, we also took the opportunity to get Martin Selmayr’s reaction to a comment we’d received from a Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Sophie in ‘t Veld, when we interviewed her recently:
I note that the US authorities have been very active in the drafting of certain internet regulations in the EU. That they engage in debate when it’s on the table is fine. But that they are actually involved in drafting it… I think the EU should be a bit more mature and defend the interests of its own citizens more. I love and admire the US, and I think it is a great nation and our closest friend and ally, but we should be a bit more assertive sometimes. Are we going to be as complacent if China does the same?
Here’s Martin Selmayr’s reaction:
What do YOU think? Should governments protect us online from the abuse of our personal data? Do we need greater regulation of privacy rules around, for example, social-networking sites? Or should individuals take greater responsibility for what they post online, and should we adopt a laissez-faire attitude to privacy rules? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.