The internet is a politically and culturally loaded tool, particularly when it comes to censorship

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As someone with a deep interest in technology and its effects on society, recent events relating to the internet – specifically, to web censorship – have left me perplexed.

Two different situations — the deletion of certain search links in Europe, and Vladimir Putin’s setting-up of the Russian internet for further censorship — have elements in common that cannot be denied. Yet I see the former as acceptable in theory and the latter as unacceptable in both theory and practice, and as such I view the nature of the internet differently in either case. It’s the same internet, of course, and therein lies the quandary.

That quandary ultimately comes down to the ability of countries and regions to maintain their own characters and social systems in the context of a network that is, like it or not, steeped in a specific set of values. And I worry that the dilemma this presents could one day tear the internet apart.

Good cop, bad cop

In Europe, where I live, there’s a war raging over the so-called right to be forgotten. A recent court ruling means Google(s goog) and other search providers have to take down links to people’s personal data if they ask, if the data isn’t protected by a public interest defense, and if the data appears – vague terminology alert – “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”

Search engines are now taking action. According to a BBC report, Google has received 91,000 requests covering 328,000 links. It has reportedly approved more than half of these requests, rejected 30 percent and asked for more information in 15 percent. There are profound arguments over aspects of the ruling’s implementation — I think it’s wrong that Google and Microsoft are acting as secret, private courts — but it’s happening in its own messy way.

I think the basic idea here is valid and everyone should give it a chance, but I fear that the internet’s nature makes the practicalities difficult if not impossible.

In Russia, meanwhile, Putin signed a law this week that forces web service providers to store Russians’ personal data in Russian data centers. This is supposed to protect local citizens from foreign hackers and spies, but the law paves the way for the president to block off access to services like Facebook(s fb) and Twitter(s twtr) — neither of which have Russian data centers — at some point. Given the Ukraine crisis and Putin’s crackdown this year on independent media in Russia, that’s a distinct possibility.

I think this is awful and dangerous, and I’m glad the internet’s nature makes the practicalities difficult if not impossible. Double standards much?

If there’s a line, who draws it?

The simplest way to judge this landscape is to say that censorship is always bad, and all efforts to impede the free flow and permanent storage of data should be opposed. This is certainly the perspective of many American commentators. And in the case of the application of EU privacy laws, some of those observers are justifiably concerned about European decisions affecting what people can see in the land of unfettered free speech:

However, in Europe people are annoyed at the idea that U.S. norms must apply everywhere. Indeed, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling that sparked this whole brouhaha was specifically about establishing that Google and other foreign search engines must obey European law if they want to operate here.

That’s precisely what Brazil’s government did in March when it passed its bill of online rights. And in some respects, the same sentiment lies behind Putin’s stance – while Brazil thankfully dropped the local storage mandate from its Marco Civil da Internet, Brazil, Russia and the EU are all trying to make sure that they can continue to apply local laws online.

To that extent, I agree with them. Whether or not you agree with the laws in question, there should not – cannot — be one set of laws for online and another for the offline world. The two are now inseparably intertwined.

At the same time, though, the internet is by its very nature deeply intertwined with a certain set of values. It is borderless and it enables practically limitless copying and transmission, meaning it allows and even encourages the permanent and unstoppable storage and proliferation of information. This makes it the ideal tool for free speech in an overriding sense that is probably, in the global legal landscape, uniquely American. And that means clashes with many other countries’ laws and values.

In the case of the “right to be forgotten”, for example, consider the fact that countries like the U.K. have laws that let people conceal criminal convictions after a specified rehabilitation period. The point is to ensure that someone doesn’t have to carry around the burden of a long-ago crime, for which they have paid penance, for the rest of their lives.

That doesn’t apply if you’re trying to travel from the U.K. to the U.S. — you must inform the U.S. immigration officials of any arrest, let alone any conviction. Fair enough; the U.S. has a right to set the terms for people crossing into its territory. But should the nature of the internet override British law on British soil? That may not be the intention at all, but if you don’t allow the online censorship of references to a spent conviction, it does amount to a form of legal and societal hegemony.

The C-word

A couple days ago I did that annoying thing of barging into what had been a bilateral discussion on Twitter(s twtr), in this case between the American Wikipedia chief Jimmy Wales and Amelia Andersdotter, the Swedish former member of the European Parliament for the Pirate Party. Wales and Andersdotter were to-and-froing over the implications of a ridiculous (and thankfully non-precedent-setting) ruling by a provincial French court, in which a blogger was fined because her negative review of a local restaurant featured too highly in Google’s rankings for that establishment.

The conversation turned to what is and isn’t censorship. I think people should be able to clean up their online reputation where there’s no public interest — obviously not in the restaurant case, as we’re talking about a public-facing business — but I also argued that doing so is a form of censorship, albeit one designed to protect the powerless rather than the powerful. Andersdotter said in that case marketing laws must also be censorship. I said they were, then Wales contended that it’s only censorship when what’s being censored is true:

With all due respect to Wales, Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster both say “censorship” can apply to any material that is deemed objectionable, offensive or harmful to society by whoever has the power to censor. Whether the material is acceptable or unacceptable, or harmful or harmless to society, is a value judgement based on cultural norms.

Google recently ordered the British music website Drowned in Sound to pixelate certain mildly sexual album covers on its website if it wants to continue carrying Google ads. That’s censorship, based on certain norms. From my vantage point in Germany, where bad language and nudity is considered culturally acceptable, this sort of puritanism seems absurd. But it is entirely in line with German cultural and legal norms to demand that Google blur certain buildings on Street View, if the occupants demand it. (I personally think that’s also taking it too far, but there you go.)

No easy solution

To be clear, I am pro-free-speech (with limited exceptions) and I’m not arguing “for censorship” as such. I’m just saying that the concept is far more nuanced and multifaceted than many make out — and that the ability to explore that complexity, and find locally acceptable balances, is threatened by the internet itself.

The internet is a globally shared platform that spans myriad jurisdictions and regional attitudes. By its nature, it overrides all of them; as John Gilmore famously said, the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. The thing is, that fact strongly favors a certain set of values – generally American – by default if not design. The internet may be a tool, but it’s not a neutral one.

We should not be surprised to see pushback against this, nor is that pushback always without merit. Should (note: not “will”) Europe be able to enforce its evolving concept of the right to be forgotten? I think it should, because I respect the right to have local laws and regional norms. Should Russia and Turkey be able to censor the daylights out of what their citizens see? My gut instinct is to say no because I hate authoritarianism and I want to see freedom spread and flourish, but I can’t escape the fact that it comes down to the same principle.

There’s a deep dilemma at the core of the internet that I don’t know how to solve. And I really hope that the fragmentation of the internet – as local storage mandates à la Russia may ultimately enable – isn’t the only solution out there.

7 Comments

Paulo Rená

Excellent approach on a really complex matter. I must only point that – besides local law – actually there is a huge historical move for drawing minimal legal standards for every nation, pointed as fundamental for the humanity as a whole, yes, the human rights. And then, at the UDHR, we come down to “Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

So, my guess, is that one do can valuate local legislation, as long as having this kind of a universal parameter.

David Meyer

UDHR Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.”

Striking the balance is where local norms come in: in the U.S., free speech overrides privacy; in Europe, privacy overrides free speech. Where you really need to worry is where neither principle is respected – a pretty good indicator of censorship being purely bad.

Graham Smith

One very poor decision by the ECJ is hardly a ‘local norm’ is it?

The problem with this analysis is that if any State interference with any fundamental right (whether it be freedom of speech, privacy or any other) can be explained away as a reflection of local cultural norms, then the notion of universal human rights is eviscerated. The point of universal fundamental rights is to proof them against being overridden by the State in the name of supposedly higher values whether they be national interest, public interest, local cultural norms, class interest, religion, or any other. You have to look somewhere else than ‘local norms’ to find the balance between competing fundamental human rights, or to determine when and to what extent it is permissible for the state to interfere with those rights.

David Meyer

If — extreme case — we’re looking at North Korea, then sure, their tradition of oppression is no defense at all against fundamental human rights. But where the rights to privacy and free speech are both respected, as in the case of both the U.S. and Europe, then I see nothing wrong with local norms/laws providing the balance between those rights.

I worry that a non-nuanced approach to the online free-speech/censorship issue plays into authoritarian hands. Characterizing the right to be de-linked/forgotten as an all-out assault on free speech gives dictators license to say “Oh well if Europe’s doing it then I can also suppress free speech here and Europe can’t complain”, which is nonsense.

For what it’s worth, my personal view is that free speech means the right to say what you want and hold the powerful to account, not to mandate the indefinite retention of all personal data against that person’s wishes.

Graham Smith

It’s not nonsense though, is it? Why can’t they say you in Europe have your balance that you say reflects your local norms, we here have our balance that we say reflects ours? Your premise is that we respect freedom of speech in Europe. Is that an objective evaluation, or a comfortable assumption that it must be so because we are nice democratic countries? What about the European countries that criminalise libel? Is that also not to be characterised as an assault on free speech, because Europe must be assumed to respect free speech?

Also beware of equating privacy with data protection. The premise of data protection law is that each of us owns (in the sense of presumptively has some right to control) any information that mentions us or can be associated with us. That is vastly overreaching, going far further than is required by any fundamental privacy right (which is limited to information in which we have a reasonable expectation of privacy). The premise is also inherently in conflict with the freedom of speech right (how can I speak about you without mentioning you?). An appropriately scoped privacy right is one thing. Data protection laws (which are what have produced RTBF) are quite another.

David Meyer

I think, where libel laws are excessive and used to protect the powerful from scrutiny — as in the U.K. — referring to an “assault” on free speech is fair. Don’t get me started on superinjunctions. But granting comeback to, say, someone unjustly monstered by national newspapers (I’m thinking of the Christopher Jefferies case here), is a different matter. The libel law in question should be limited in some way to protect the powerless but not the powerful.

I don’t pretend to know exactly where the line should be drawn, though I have ideas on that and would happily engage in debate on the matter. What I do think is that these things occupy points on a spectrum. All-or-nothing views are not helpful.

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