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24th Feb 2024

EU abandoning internet policing to private companies

  • 'Large chunks of the commission ... are actually inventing ways of pushing the enforcement of regulation ... into the private sphere' (Photo: eurocontrol)

The European Commission's drive to have public policy carried out by companies risks creating an internet policed by private corporations and no judicial recourse for those affected by their decisions, say digital rights campaigners.

With proposals due out this year that affect online rights, Joe McNamee, advocacy officer at European Digital Rights, an umbrella organisation for privacy and civil rights organisations, believes the commission is seeking to abdicate its responsibility to uphold fundamental rights online by having companies to do it instead.

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"Large chunks of the commission ... are actually inventing ways of pushing the enforcement of regulation, and therefore the understanding of the law, into the private sphere," said McNamee in an interview.

He cited a recent dialogue between the commission and industry where they "discussed internet providers voluntarily turning into sheriff's deputies and policing peer-to-peer networks" or the on-going talks "about persuading internet providers to delete websites that have been accused of doing something illegal."

According to McNamee, current internal thinking in the commission would see EU-funded hotlines that receive complaints about websites that may contain content involving child abuse contact the internet providers to delete the website, thus bypassing law enforcement authorities completely. This, he argues, would inadvertently facilitate the perceived inaction by some member-state police forces towards online child abuse.

"I asked the question: 'Are you actually serious? Are you saying that there are actually police forces in the EU that will not take action if they receive complaints about child abuse material being hosted in their jurisdiction? And the commission's answer to this is to facilitate this by working around it and having the provider take the entirely cosmetic measure of removing the website'."

McNamee believes this would lead to a dangerous spiral of the police not bothering to do anything because they know the symptom will be treated and criminals relying on the fact that the biggest threat is the inconvenience of having their website removed. Meanwhile, if the website in question is not actually illegal, then those concerned have no clear judicial recourse.

The question of requiring internet service providers to take part in carrying out government policy has come to the fore as policy-makers seek to tackle online infringement of copyright or deal with issues such as child pornography online.

The key proposal in the pipeline when it comes to involving ISPs is the intellectual property rights strategy due to be published in late spring by the commission. Last year, the commission proposed internet providers should be involved in closing down child pornography sites.

The potential involvement of companies goes across the board. Commission dialogues on file-sharing, illegal online material, counterfeiting and trademarks have all considered using businesses to enforce rules.

The commission's take on the matter is part of a global trend. Similar thinking is visible in projects or initiatives in the US as well as in organisations such as the OECD, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the Council of Europe.

"At the moment, there is simply no awareness of this issue. There is a discussion in the [European] parliament from time to time about internet providers becoming more responsible, which sounds like a good thing. But what does it mean? What it means is the internet provider making the decision about what people may or may not see," says McNamee.

However, a recently-opened court case in the UK is being keenly watched both by EU officials and digital rights campaigners.

Internet providers BT and TalkTalk are challenging the part of the UK's Digital Economy Act that deals with illegal filesharing.

The companies argue that the Act infringes on consumers' privacy as well as forces them police the internet. If the court finds in their favour, the law will no longer be enforceable.

Read more in the EUobserver April FOCUS on Digital Agenda.

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