The Commmissioner for Information Society, Neelie Kroes, has today announced that the European Union will spend money on developing software tools to help political activists in countries such as Syria, to circumvent surveillance technology. At the same time, the Commission is working on ‘self-regulation’ of the European Internet, where ISPs will be asked to prevent the very same circumventions  for the benefit of, among others, the copyright industries.  Upholder of democracy or bureaucratic hypocrisy? It could be both, but  it is odd that the  Commission's   choice of adviser  is   Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He is the rich  German aristocrat, and former CSU politician, who was found to have  plagiarised chunks of his PhD thesis.

 Commissioner Kroes was announcing the ‘No disconnect’ policy, which is intended to protect the Internet as a driver of free speech and democracy.  It's goal is to support free speech and human rights on the Internet in those countries where political speech is suppressed. Under the initiative, technical support and advice will be provided by the Commission to Internet users, bloggers, and cyber-activists in countries with authoritarian governments. However, the only such country named in the press information is Syria. 

The European Commission is trying to position this policy as protecting free speech by helping people to get around Internet censorship imposed by such authoritarian regimes.  A key plank of the policy is to “develop and distribute tools to help activists bypass restrictions” . Another element is “Stimulating EU companies to develop self-regulatory approaches”.

 However, last week at a European Parliament seminar*, a representative of the Commission discussed other plans for ‘self-regulatory approaches’ which  - as it is generally understood - would involve asking the ISPs to block and take down Internet content in the EU. Sitting on the panel  with her,  were representatives of the music industry, who reiterated their mantra that ‘ISPs have a role to play in helping us grow our business’. Also on the panel  was Malcolm Hutty of EuroISPA, who  issued a reminder that  these ‘self-regulatory approaches’ will  by-pass the courts.

 The two policy iniatives are in direct conflict and suggest a hypocritical stance on the part of the Commission, to be seen internationally as the protector of free speech, whilst repressing it for the benefit of major industries at home.

 This makes it all the more concerning that the man who will advise the Commission on this  new international initiative has such a controversial background. 

Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg was appointed today to this post. He is the former German Defence Minister who resigned in storm of controversy over plagiarism in his PhD thesis.   The German media nicknamed him ‘Baron Cut-and-paste’. He has  worked on arms control and banking policies, but does not appear to have a  previous connection with Internet policy.

 However,  the announcement had hardly escaped Mrs Kroes’ lips,  when Herr Zu Gutenberg  had already altered his Wikipedia page (checked at 14.30 GMT on 12 December 2011): “On 12 December 2011, zu Guttenberg was asked by European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes to promote internet freedom globally as part of the European Union's new "No Disconnect Strategy".

 If anyone else with such a  cv  had applied for the job, they would  not even have been considered. Plagiarism in  a PhD thesis   is  not a minor misdemeanor. It is a very  grave matter.  The PhD is the highest and most important of all academic qualifications, one which many regard as a life-time achievement.  The title of ‘Doctor’ is one which engenders respect. Writing a thesis of merit,  requires  a rigorous academic methodology which is tested before the award of the degree.  

 Conversely, academics who plagiarise, or who permit plagiarism, are a discredit to their profession. Thus, the plagiarism accusations alone  should automatically have ensured his disqualification from the post.

One has to assume therefore, that his appointment was a political one.  Sadly, this conflation of policy and politics risks turning a positive EU initiative into a total fiasco.

 *The seminar was entitled 'Self-regulation  - Should online companies police the Internet' and was hosted by Marietje Schaake.