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The Free Internet in Jeopardy

The venerated BBC World Service recently commissioned a polled involving more than 27,000 people across 26 countries. The findings are unremarkable: some 87% of Internet users believe that Internet access should be a basic right, and more than 70% of non-users believe that they should have access to it.

Depending on your country, the Internet has been available for ten years or more, and for individuals—at least in the developed world—it has since become ingrained in psyches as an essential commodity, akin to access to fixed-line telephony, electricity and potable water. For a growing number, the Internet is essential for work, for a greater number it is the first port of call for problem solving and information (Wiki and online Yellow pages come to mind) or getting things done (banking, finding out timetables for travel, etc). Most governments, too, now take the Internet as a key component of infrastructure, crucial to a nation’s future socio-economic potential.

What governments may do with the Internet is another matter. A decade’s experience and use of the service has enabled a growing number of governments to manhandle the potential dangers of hacking, fraud and privacy as a means to tighten the screws on their own control of access, and of their nationals’ use of it. This is rightly opposed by the users themselves, over half of whom surveyed for the BBC believing that no government should be empowered to regulate the Internet.

In Europe, the ‘three strikes rule’ threatens to become more fashionable, following measures first proposed in France: there, the Création et Internet Bill failed in 2009 when France’s Conseil Constitutionnel ruled that it leaned too much to ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and that it threatened major sanctions (Internet disconnection and a national blacklist on access) without judicial oversight. Nevertheless, the government shoehorned the Bill a second time, which this month came before the National Assembly for debate.

The Bill proposes that the scheme be administered by a newly formed group called HADOPI. ISPs notified about alleged file-sharing would be required to send an e-mail to the customer involved, a registered letter at the second alleged offence and, for a third offence, terminate access for up to a year. A database managed by HADOPI could presumably prevent blocked users from switching ISPs.

Italy looks like adopting a similar approach. Having in 2009 sued the Swedish The Pirate Bay site and attempted to force ISPs to block access to its content, the more recent charging of Google executives with criminal charges resulting from YouTube content denotes a government leaning towards authoritarianism regarding the Internet. The Italian three-strikes proposal would be complemented by a requirement that all blogs register with the government.

In the UK, meanwhile, the government is pushing through its controversial Digital Economy Bill, which proposes empowering regulators to disconnect or slow down Internet connections of persistent illegal file-sharers. Amendments to the Bill passed this month at the report stage at the House of Lords before its third and final reading in the House of Commons, could in theory force sites such as YouTube which host copyright-infringing material to be blocked or forced offline. The UK’s three-strikes rule is similar in its essentials to those of France and the UK, with disconnection following two warnings.

At the European Union level, the European Parliament was initially critical of the three-strikes schemes, largely due to the absence of judicial review. However, this month the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was put forward for debate between the US, the EC, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada and Mexico. Aimed at preventing online counterfeiting, it threatens to punish ISPs for content delivered.

Polls show the sincerity of popular regard for a free Internet, and suggest that to tackle piracy other solutions than blocking ISPs and throwing citizens offline should be considered. Until they are considered, citizens should, as always, be vigilant about what their governments are legislating, lest they find themselves with a thoroughly policed Internet far removed from what they now know it to be.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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