A new political battle over the Internet has just commenced in Brussels. The battle field is a set of proposals from the European Commission about content platforms – for which, you should understand to be Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay etc. These companies are at the centre of a conflict that is raging politically about what role they should play, if any, in regulating content. And if they do have a role, how should they carry it out?
The Communication on Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market – opportunities and challenges for Europe sets out
what the Commission thinks about a range of online businesses, including, social media and blogging platforms, voice and video communications services, messaging services, and applications. These businesses are all grouped together under the term 'online platforms'. The proposals will target the so-called user generated content sites such as YouTube, as well as the large, well known social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. E-commerce and auction sites and some cloud computing services will also be affected.
The European Commission rightly suggests that these online businesses are central to the digial economy and to providing opportunities for start-ups. In that way, the Commission puts forward a rational economic basis for policy initiatives. However, underlying the rational economic arguments are a range of conflicting interests between different industrial corporations, and also between civil society, industry and governments.
These underlying conflicts provide the framework for the political battle. It is in one sense a bi-partisan fight between these online platforms and other interests, notably copyright holders, who are demanding content removal and other actions to protect their copyright. However, given the breadth of business interests vested in online platforms, as defined by the Commission, this battle is pitched far more widely, with partisans camped across telecoms, software, retail, and applications developers. Ranged against them, along with the rights-holder industries, are law enforcement authorities and other interests. At stake is the free and open Internet, with freedom of expression at its heart.
The measures being proposed by the Commission address Skype and other voip services, e-commerce and social media sites. Social media and videosharing sites will be asked to act "more responsibly" and enter into industry agreements not only for addressing copyright, but also to police content for terrorism, hate speech and protection of minors. Messaging and voice-over-IP providers will be asked to accept aspects of regulation, and to retain communications traffic data, in order to create a 'level playing field' with the telecoms companies.
The proposals reflect ongoing demands from the copyright industries and law enforcement authorities, as well as certain single-interest campaigning groups. They also reflect known positions of the telecoms former monopoly companies who are now in charge of Internet access. However, if implemented without proper safeguards and due process they pose a threat to free speech and privacy rights.
Some of the new measures will be brought into law by amending existing directives such as the Audio-Visual Meda Services Directive (AVMSD) or the forthcoming review of the telecoms framework. That means that they will have to pass through the European Parliament, which does have the opportunity to amend them, or even to reject them.
However, the European Commission has also put forward the vague suggestion of 'self-regulatory efforts'. This means that the various industry interest groups will be asked to discuss among themselves and come up with a proposal, leaving it to the participants to determine what is required. There is already opposition to this suggestion from civil liberties advocates ( see here from EDRi).
The civil liberties concern is that the corporations will be asked to take decisions related to free speech – decisions that should properly be overseen by a court. Another concern is that processes are happening behind the scenes that affect fundamental rights, with no transparency or accountability.
Moreover, in situations where measures involve two different industries or interest groups, self-regulatory talks can become very tense and rarely result in a workable solution. The additional threat to fundamental rights serves to increase the tension, risking signficant unpopularity of any measures that may result. The outcome can lead to public protest, or to lengthy litigation in lieu of a policy compromise.
Perhaps the Commission has forgotten its experience of only a few years ago, when ite representative became very frustrated in talks between rights-holders and Internet providers, and talks were disbanded. Maybe is has also forgotten the ACTA protests, when thousands of young voters on the streets of various European cities, ultimately forced a change of political direction. Indeed, it may have overlooked the raft of copyright law suits against ISPs because the policy process was incapable of creating a resolution that all could agree to. ( See The Closing of the Net ).
Such a battlefield is not, of course, what the European Commission intended when it released its Communication on Online Platforms. The Commission takes the perspective that the Internet is about markets and bearing that in mind, one can follow its rationale, even if one disagrees.
However, the market rationale is precisely why the Commission always lands itself in hot water over freedom of expression issues, where democratic values rather than economics, stoke up the debate. A political battle between these different interest groups and industries puts the Commission in an invidious position, where it can never win.
Read the Communication on Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market – opportunities and challenges for Europe
This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, 2016, Social media, video & clouds in firing line as EU sparks Internet content battle in Iptegrity.com, 26 May 2016. Commercial users - please contact me.
If you like this article, you might also like my latest book The Closing of the Net which is about corporate influence over EU policy. It discusses the political pressures on content platforms and blocking measures against the broadband providers and ISPs.