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In the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, what of our free speech rights?

As we begin 2015, let's remind ourselves that this year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - the Great Charter that first established rights and on which later charters of human rights have been built. In 2015, we are seeing more and more threats to those hard won rights by various interest groups (corporate and non-corporate) who want to block and take control of our communications systems that have been established over the Internet in the past two decades or so. It does look like 2015 is going to be critical year for the protection of those rights.

Looking back to 2014, there were some real game changers. Policy-makers lent their support to a net neutrality princple with one hand, whilst placing an ever hardening grip on internet intermediaries with the other. The network should remain open, unless it suits the business interests of the telecoms companies to do otherwise. The web is free, but may be closed upon maniacal screams from non-profit interests for online platforms to "take responsibility". After the Sony hack, free speech must be protected when the 'speech' is a commercial film and some accidental PR means it will outsell expecations; but free speech should be shut up when it exposes corporate scheming against the public interest.

Is the open Internet strong enough to survive the multitude of pressures that are now attacking it? And which wild cards do we think the EU will play?

2014 saw some unexpected policy developments on net neutrality and privacy. Positive political support for net neutrality from Barack Obama was a welcome development, as was the adoption of a positive net neutrality principle in the first reading of a new EU law, but more pressure will be needed in 2015 to see that political will translated into policy.

On privacy, moves by the European Union to strengthen the regulation of data protection got a mixed reaction. Presented as a strengthening of privacy law, the EU legal changes adopted by the European Parliament, were said by privacy advocates to be not strong enough, and by industry to be too much. In my opinion, the European Parliament's amendments will put the EU in an improved position for the inevitable political bargaining with third countries, notably the US, that will happen in 2015.

A big game shifter of 2014 was the new focus by governments on counter-terrorisim and the Internet. This is a game-shifter because, if we are not careful, it will legitimate blocking and filtering of content, in a way that is unacceptable in a democratic society. The call by GCHQ's Robert Hannigan for a public debate, if genuine, is to be welcomed. This public debate is important, and it is vital that it is not just a media-style bash-up between "supporters" and "opponents", nor should it be led by false idealogues. It should be an open and public discussion about how we should balance private information and public security, and what technical and legal methods are most appropriate to achieve the desirable public goals.

If we fail to hold such a public debate, then the policy will be set behind closed doors and will be driven by interests that have different axes to grind, and potentially want to feather their own nests - as is currently happening in the UK.

The role and responsibility - and liability - of the technology intermediaries - is key to this debate, and understand what they can do with the technology and what kind of powers we might be handing over to them - is something that must be incorporated into this debate.

The hacking of Sony Pictures at the end of 2014, raised the public awareness of Internet policy in the mainstream media, but it put the focus onto security, rather than open communications. In the elite circles of policy wonks, it has raised yet more questions about the political lobbying of the film and music industries, notably the Hollywood studios and the recorded music industry, calling for multifarious methods of blocking. (See A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms for more on entertainment industry lobbying).

In this context, there are the international trade negotiations of TTIP and the lesser known TISA, that could risk bringing in new rules for the Internet by the back door.

With so many issues on the table, it needs to be recognised that policy-making must jump out of its old silos and look at the big picture of what we want from the Internet in a democratic society. It's essential that they recognise how one false move can have implications down the line in other, apparentaly unconnected areas. But that is not the same as putting them all under one roof, as the European Commission has done. Sadly, I think that move is doomed to end in tears.

To date, we are still waiting to see what the EU focus for 2015 will be. With two new Commissioners responsible for all things digital, the policy direction is unclear. From the European Parliament hearings last year, it was very clear that Andrus Ansip, the Vice President in charge of digital issues, understands the controversial issues and is conversant with the technology, whereas Günther Oettinger quite frankly is not. The problem is that Oettinger is from a large and powerful member state, whereas Ansip is from a small one.

The European Commission has strongly signalled that it wants to bring in new legislation on copyright, but exactly what will be addressed is unclear. As the Commission internally negotiates, we are all eagerly awaiting to find out where the action will be. Mr Ansip's complaints about 'geo-blocking' of his football subscription gives us one clue we have. Will the EU finally tackle this decade-old problem of cross-border rights? On enforcement, the EU may revive the Notice and Action directive.

The other signal, not at all welcome, is that the Juncker Commission has been captured by the large telecoms companies, who want a restructuring of the telecoms industry in Europe, getting rid of the competitive structures and going for consolidation.

There is even a rumour that the Commission will try to withdraw the Telecoms Regulation (Connected Continent) with the motive of getting rid of the net neutrality provisions adopted by the European Parliament. I am unclear if they can legally do this, and even if they could technically do it, would it be wise? The adoption of these proposals was so high profile within the old Commission and any such withdrawal would be an obvious move to scrap a policy that industry interests don't want.

2015 will be a busy year for Internet policy, a key question is whether policy-makers will be how to balance the different rights at stake in a fair and equitable policy implementation. I think there is also a question arising as to the correct identification of those rights. Every tiny interest group claims rights. Some are already addressed under civil law. In a democratic society, the concern of government is to guarantee free speech for all. Even where we may disagree with that speech, we must defend the rights of others to say it. Ensuring that the Internet remains a communications system that works for all, and guarantees that broad free speech right, is going to be a real challenge. Our fear is that our policy-makers are just not up to it.


If you like this article, then you may also like my books:

A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms " brilliant exposé"

The Copyright Enforcement Enigma Internet Politics and the Telecoms Package "excellent work of scholarship "

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it or to its content, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, 2015, Network consolidation, counter-terrorism, Sony hack - Internet policy game-changers for 2015? in Iptegrity.com 3 January 2015 . Commercial users - please contact me.

Tags: Internet, policy, free speech, net neutrality, technology, intermediaries, european union, oettinger, ansip, magna carta, telecoms, blocking, copyright,

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

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