Big tech accountability? Read how we got here in  The Closing of the Net 

European Parliament event 2012

10 years ago in 2007, I started this blog,  Over that time, I’ve had a ring-side seat on policy debates about the way the Internet should be governed, and the battles over controlling content and surveillance. Here I reflect on those 10 years.

The Iptegrity blog began with some tentative posts about copyright online and Internet filtering and it took off when my PhD research on the EU Telecoms Package (2009) was picked up by lobbyists and activists and parachuted into the European Parliament, where  I was invited to present on  Internet filtering in August 2008.  Iptegrity continues to attract a readership from the European institutions today.

In the past 10 years, I’ve met stakeholders of all colours across the spectrum from the  so-called “copyright mafia” Motion Picture Association to their nemesis The Pirate Bay, Internet Services Providers and of course, those whipping posts of today’s politicans,  Facebook and Google.

I’ve published three books in the traditional way – you can find them here – and I’ve had the privilege to work with the Council of Europe on two quite different projects in my field –  drafting a new legal instrument and capacity building inthe former Soviet States.

What’s changed? I suggest that the Internet evolved into quite a different creature from the way we saw it back then,  and  the underlying, enabling  technology  is filtering,  exactly as I and others predicted back then. It’s just that the filters are getting more sophisticated, and that creates a whole new set of  policy issues.

 Why Internet wars?

10 years’ ago it was positioned as Hollywood versus Silicon Valley.  It was a commercial battle between ‘big content’ - movie studios and recorded music companies – versus  their opponents, the Internet service providers (ISPs). Lurking in the background were  some emerging new companies that facilitated  what we called ‘user generated content’.

The heart of the battle  was about who should control the distribution of content online.  Big content demanded  ‘co-operation’ to deal with so-called copyright piracy.  The Internet service providers retorted ‘sort your business model’.  

The battle was lost, and it  was won. It was won because big content  has been forced to change its behaviour by the changes in user behvaviour, and the old hard copy versions of music and movie distribution have all but died out in favour of online methods. However, it was lost because we are seeing  Silicon Valley companies and ISPs  co-operating  - in slightly different ways, sometimes under court orders, sometimes ‘voluntary’.

Today the battleground has significantly shifted.  Now it might better be described as governments versus Silicon Valley.  The issues are largely non-commercial and relate to a societal or public interest – terrorism, protecting children, hate speech, harrassment. It’s no longer about corporations locking horns over commercial spoils, it is the  State versus the corporate. These  issues are deeply political, deeply divisive, and in many cases, deeply national.

However their  ‘Silicon Valley’ opponents have evolved too.  Those user-generated content platforms have become global giants the like of which has never been seen before. What governments are struggling with, and in some cases do not seem to understand, is how the  global power of the technology corporations has become  larger than the power of any individual State.  With almost 2 billion users, Facebook is larger than any State and its market valuation  makes it larger than conventional companies such as CocaCola.  They hold that power in their ownership of the global infrastructure and distribution processes and because of that ownership, they can hold out against State demands and force policy choices. (See my book The Closing of the Net ).  

Filtering – an enabling techology

All the signs were there back in 2008, when I presented in the European Parliament on the Telecoms Package and network filtering. It was clear  that this is a powerful technology that should be regarded with awe and caution but we were only just beginning to understand it.   Filtering, like the policy battle, has evolved from a network-based technology onto the global platforms who are building their own databases of ‘bad’  content, and from url-based techniques into machine-learning systems such as Facebook’s Deep Text.

The question is will deep text evolve into deep throat? Will I be censored for even writing the words ‘deep throat’? The platforms claim that their text scanning systems can be trained to work out context – but how good are they really, and who or what might literally fall through the Net?

Deep Throat was an adult movie. It was also the code name of a whistleblower. Here are the overtones of surveillance and censorship. If a system can be trained to seek out individual words, the question is what action will it take when it finds them and what will happen to writers who use them? It is sad times indeeed, if I, as a writer, have to consider the use of words to avoid the censor.

Governments still fail to understand that it’s not just about getting rid of the ‘bad’ content, it’s about how you regulate that process to ensure fairness for all. The balance is no longer about a commercial right, it is about competing public interest rights. There is a public interest in countering terrorism and a competing public interest in freedom of expression. Responsible governments have to balance these two competing rights.

Filtering is an enabling technology, but it is not the silver bullet, precisely because it cannot suppress all of the ‘bad’ content without also suppressing legitimate comment. Likewise, if it seeks to protect legitimate speech, it will inevitably also allow some of the ‘bad’ content to remain. There are also massive policy questions about where to draw the line, who should decide and how to provide redress for legitimate users affected by this is new form of censorship.  

Lest we forget

Talk of war tends to crush discussion of achievement. I’d like to finish with a reminder about the amazing powers for good that the Internet has brought. The enormous connectivity of the networks, platforms and websites,  generates a ‘network effect’ that creates an engine for commerce, social activity and democracy. That has itself evolved over the past 10 years with the rise of social media and platforms.  It has enabled us to do thing there were unimaginable even just 20 years ago. Like connect with long lost friends and family. Or reach out and build support groups to help the sick and the vulnerable. It has transformed business and created opportunities for many people  and small companies.  As the online ecosystem continues to evolve, those opoortunities will continue to present themselves.

That is what policy should be aiming to protect. Lest we forget.


Contact me if you would like to discuss any of the  issues raised  (Via Contact Us page or Twitter @Iptegrity).

If you liked this article, you may also like my book The Closing of the Net which  discusses Internet governance policy, and includes chapters on content restrictions and surveillance. 

 If you cite this article or its contents, please attribute and Monica Horten as the author. Photo shows me presenting at an event in the European Parliament in 2012. Sadly, I don't have a photo of my 2008 presentation. If anyone does have one, I'd love to hear from you.

Iptegrity in brief is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I’ve been analysing analysing digital policy since 2008. Way back then, I identified how issues around rights can influence Internet policy, and that has been a thread throughout all of my research. I hold a PhD in EU Communications Policy from the University of Westminster (2010), and a Post-graduate diploma in marketing.   I’ve served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe  Committee on Internet Freedoms, and was involved in a capacity building project in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. I am currently (from June 2022)  Policy Manager - Freedom of Expression, with the Open Rights Group. For more, see About Iptegrity is made available free of charge for  non-commercial use, Please link-back & attribute Monica Horten. Thank you for respecting this.

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States v the 'Net? 

Read The Closing of the Net, by me, Monica Horten.

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