Unless something drastic (and possibly quite unpleasant) shakes up the international order over the course of the 21st century, the Internet will never be “regulated” or “governed” by a single entity. The Net is a complex set of technologies that impacts almost every area of life on planet Earth, yet despite promising digital wonders to billions of people there is nevertheless a real risk of the Internet beginning to “segment” into nationally-controlled protectorates over the coming decades, with surveillance, censorship and controlled access to cyberspace growing more widespread.

We also seem to be witnessing a more “weaponised” online environment, with governments, terrorists, criminal gangs and bored teenagers developing and deploying programs and applications that are increasingly being described in military terms (and, indeed, one MEP we spoke to suggested that the EU should consider an export-ban on “digital arms”).

Nevertheless, despite the absence of a single authority there is an abundance of discussion (and some coordination) taking place between NGOs, governments, international organisations and private corporations aimed at achieving a sort of soft “internet governance”. In fact, Debating Europe will be covering one such forum on the 22-24 January when we will try to get some of your questions answered by panellists at the 7th International CPDP (Computers, Privacy & Data Protection) Conference in Brussels.

In the meantime, though, we had a question sent in from John, who thought the balance between self-regulation and legislation online needed to be seriously reviewed:

citizen_icon_180x180Individual companies, however big they are, seem to be unwilling or unable to combine their huge knowledge of how the internet works to sort out the several major problems that continue to plague cyberspace.

Maybe they are staying focused on their own, narrower commercial interests or they find it too difficult to co-operate with other firms whom they are normally competing against. Either way, in the absence of this kind of action by industry, governments must step forward to speak for and protect the broader public interest.

This is particularly true during times of sluggish or zero economic growth when businesses will be less and less inclined to take a longer term or more expansive view of things as they struggle to maintain existing revenues.

We took John’s comment to David Tennenhouse, Vice President of Technology Policy at Microsoft, to get his reaction. Tennenhouse responded that people have been predicting a crisis in internet governance since the mid-1990s, and yet the “multi-stakeholder” approach (bringing together companies, civil society and governments) had not yet failed.

We put the same comment to Marjetje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who sits with the  Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament. She argued that it was certainly the role of government to protect the public ineterest because companies ultimately have only one goal: which is to make a profit. Whilst cautioning against over-regulation, she argued that the EU should not be afraid of regulating new online technologies as they develop.

Are private corporations unwilling or unable to solve the major problems that plague cyberspace? Are they too focused on narrow commercial interests to cooperate? Should governments step forward to protect the broader public interest online? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

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IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – infocux Technologies

16 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Davor Bilobrk Zekan

    We are not children and our ability to protect ourselves is out of question… But, due to the fact that a number of business and related activities is done in cyberspace, governments’ foundation of a sort of cyber police can be considered as reasonable course of development…

  2. avatar
    Jaime Martins

    Governments have a tendency to overly control what goes on the internet and force the censorship

  3. avatar
    Antinazi Archimedes

    “Who can best protect the public interest online?”. The public because the government is spying on it’s own citizens while supporting Al Qaeda affiliated groups to murder innocent people in Syria and other places.

  4. avatar
    catherine benning

    To try and answer this question is indeed complicated.

    We cannot any longer pretend that what we send through cyber space is at all ‘private’ for our eyes only. We know every thought we write or word we use is being read and interpreted, rightly or wrongly, by a deviant force. And a force that is not necessarily of our own country. If you had read about this takeover of our souls twenty years ago would anyone have thought the public would put up with such an invasion? I don’t believe we would.

    So, presently and because of the takeover by sinister governments, we are the only people who can look after ourselves. But even then, you cannot judge how another will interpret your views or not use what you write or think as a way to ‘get’ you because they don’t like you having a free voice. You are not necessarily going along with their agenda and they feel that is a threat. All the free thinkers out there are feeling the pinch already.

    The only move anyone can make is to be as clear as they can in what they write. And lobby for the invasion of privacy to be stopped by legislative control and removal of the offending country from our midst. Those who spy have no legal right to do so. What we think or feel is our own to do with as we wish. To contemplate robbing a bank is a fantasy. Are we no longer to stretch our imagination for fear we will be banged up? What happened to ‘you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking’? What we have presently is George Orwell’s worst nightmare.

    Can you imagine the field day dictators would have with such powerful databases. And none of us would be safe. Including those at the top of the heap. So, something has to be done about it and quickly. The first thing being a removal of the right to extradition from those outside of Europe, unless the offender is a native of such a requesting country, and they committed the ‘crime’ within its land space. No European should be extradited to the USA, they do not have a legal system that complies with ours. And this goes for any European country that does not have a matching system with the mainstream. They must have a joined up way of dealing with illegality across the entire EU.

    The EU has no authority to expand its borders unless every state within it is able to function with the same legal system and advocacy as we have in the main block. That goes for all our policies, including welfare benefits and workers rights.

    So this is a much bigger issue that it portends to be in the thread opening.

    This man was given a voice on our BBC January 2nd, on just this issue. His insight is worthwhile.

  5. avatar
    Mihai Petru Ceuca

    no governments extra-control ! government=not “it”, but “them”=politicians! will you trust them with that ?

  6. avatar

    no governments extra-control ! government=not “it”, but “them”=politicians! will you trust them with that ?

  7. avatar
    Maija Dravnieks

    The computer as a library , all deserve to have mind freedom… It’s just the yuck that make for wonder , which falls to opinion.

  8. avatar
    Panos Kontogiannis

    European politicians are very resourceful when they want to spend the taxpayers money. No thanks! We do not need another agency to protect us from the previous agencies wrongdoing. Each one of us should take care of his/hers privacy. I vote for a “as small as possible goverment and very low taxes”

  9. avatar
    James Stevens

    Probably the biggest threat to us is from the Government and the EU, any online threat trifles in comparison.

  10. avatar
    Olivier Laurent

    So far the biggest threat you could face online are governements (ask Snowden if you need more detail).

  11. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    The general public should protect their own online interests – END OF!

  12. avatar
    Peter Morrison

    There are many ways to protect the internet, and privacy in the use of it. These are continuing to be developed. Because of its structure it can never be centrally controlled.

  13. avatar

    Who can best protect the public interest online?

    That’s a no brainer. The Law. And the different colour “hats” (hackers) :)

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