Will Commission Proposal Stop Abuse of Power Online?

Netopia first started in Sweden in 2010, but in 2013 moved to Brussels and changed language to English. There were two reasons. First, the future of the digital society is a global conversation and it made little sense to participate in it in Swedish – a language that only 10 Million people speak. The other reason was that I thought the European institutions are the only ones who could balance the power of the internet platforms. The general understanding of how the Internet ought to work at the time was that regulation was the enemy of freedom. I found this weird, elsewhere we have a working system where individuals have rights, institutions protect those rights and those institutions are under democratic control. Why should the internet be different? Now it appears I was onto something. The other day, president Juncker and four other members of the European Commission proposed guidelines and principles for online platforms to tackle illegal content online. Progress!

The rules on immunity from prosecution for intermediaries online were conceived long before the breakthrough of social media and data monopolists. They were intended to protect private communication online, but have been thoroughly abused over the years to the extent that all traffic (even machine-to-machine-communication) is regarded as speech and that internet platforms can beat the competition, not with more innovative technology but with a legal trump card called safe harbor. This has created a centralized internet where the rich get richer and where private communication is monitored and sold to advertisers. The opposite of why the immunity rules were put in place to begin with! Oh, the irony.

This impossible situation has become more and more obvious, just as the denial on the part of the companies concerned. When first faced with the allegations of manipulation of the US presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (himself a potential candidate for president!) dismissed it as speculation. Weeks later, he had to concede that not only had Facebook played a part but also sold adverts to foreign agents wanting to influence the election. (Twitter and maybe Google also played a part.) Something in line with what European Commission just proposed became inevitable.

The responses have been predictable: It will break the internet. It will stop innovation. It will inspire dictators. It will stop freedom of speech. I never thought I’d say this, but there sure is a lack of imagination in the pirates, net freedom activists and lobbyists who oppose all and any regulation online. They will have to come up with something better. The internet won’t be broken, the threat to freedom online is not democracy but monopoly. Innovation will be fine, except some of the would-be disruptors who look for legal advantages more than fresh technologies may have to think of something new. Dictators will go ahead and oppress anyway as they always have done, sometimes with the aid of Western technology companies. And freedom of speech is the right to express your own opinion without prior inspection by the authorities, so we don’t have to worry about that either.

Freedom of speech, competition, innovation, a de-centralised internet, privacy online… intermediary action is the key to all these things. Until now, the internet platforms have had to be loyal only to the owners and the bottom line (no, not the users, they are locked in in various ways). This leaves little room for the priorities that matter to society in general in the longer term. It is clear that internet platforms will only take responsibility when they are forced to do so. As The Guardian has revealed, Facebook only moderates holocaust denialists if it faces “risk of getting blocked in a country or a legal risk”.

With the proposal from European Commission, there is real pressure on the tech giants of Silicon Valley to take responsibility and do something. The question remains if this is enough. The track record is not impressive, rather the tech companies have done as little as possible as late as possible. Keep the pressure high, President Juncker.