Will New Digital Commissioners Put Europe in Forefront of Internet Governance?

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The Juncker commission has a strong focus on digital, not one but two nominated commissioners to cover this field: the German Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Günther Oettinger,  and Estonian Commission’s Vice President for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip. The former will be in charge of setting clear long-term strategic goals to offer legal certainty to the sector while the latter will be responsible for overseeing the drafting of policies linked to the digital economy by seven Commissioners in their respective policy areas. The single digital market aside, Netopia asks how this duo will address the growing challenge of internet governance: who makes the rules online and how can we make sure the same rules apply as in the offline world?

There are two schools of thought on this matter: multi-stakeholderism and government action. Multi-stakeholderism is the notion that the internet is best served untouched by government regulation, the less regulation the more freedom is the theory. Instead, the government is one of multiple stakeholders, the others being civil society, industry and the technology community, each with equal voice at summits like the Internet Governance Forum. It is a self-regulation of sorts, but with no teeth. The multi-stakeholder model can at best inform and suggest courses of action to those with the real power: those who design technology, define and enforce terms of use, operate dominating online market and social platforms, and manage traffic in the networks. At worst, the multi-stakeholder model is an exercise in futility serving as a smoke-screen for these actors to go about their business as they wish without outside involvement.

The other idea is based on democracy and the thought that human rights are best supported by law, courts and public institutions. This is the model that has served the West so well, underpinning both Europe and America’s celebrated Montesqueieu-influenced constitutions. This view has best been articulated by the French Senate in its recent report Europe to the Rescue of the Internet, which suggests Europe takes the lead in creating a more democratic and productive internet governance, pointing to the disadvantages of the current US-dominated rather than truly global internet, such as the surveillance scandals following the Edward Snowden-revelations.

The main case against the democratic path is that it would open the floodgates for dictators to intervene and that Western democracies must stand in the way of such a development. Of course those dictators already monitor, censor and control the internet locally in various ways, often with the active aid and support of Western tech and telecom companies (Ericsson in Syria, Nokia/Siemens in Iran, TeliaSonera in Belarus to name but a few). It’s not the Internet’s fault that there are oppressive regimes in many countries, at the same time the Internet as such won’t bring democracy.

Will Commissioners Oettinger and Ansip resort to Silicon Valley messianism, like their predecessor? Or will the new Commission take this opportunity for Europe to take the lead in internet governance based on human rights. That would make internet governance a project for real liberation and world peace.

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This is Netopia’s newsletter on September 19 2014