The EU has a leading role to play in ensuring digital freedoms, writes Marietje Schaake.
Europe’s financial and economic crises have drawn our perspective inward at the expense of global ambitions. Meanwhile, the world is facing revolutionary changes such as the exponential growth of the internet and other technologies.
Governance presents quite a challenge as the internet simply does not consider traditional borders. While avoiding over-regulating digital freedoms must be guaranteed. The EU is in an excellent position to play a leading role in digital freedom in the world.
China,IranandCubaare notorious for building electronic walls that cut off internet users through censorship and monitoring in an attempt to control their populations. The list of countries that target people’s human rights and restrict access to the internet through legislation is growing.
This game of virtual land grabbing should concern the EU. The invaluable economic and social benefits the digital revolution has brought to our societies happened without a top down governance structure. Even the internet itself, as an invention, has not been patented.
Organically, a governing system has developed in which businesses, organizations, governments and users all play their part. This so-called ‘multi-stakeholder model’ has room at the table for all stakeholders. At the United Nations (UN) level there’s the ‘internet governance forum’ which coexists with the international telecommunications union (ITU). The battle to regain influence and power online also takes place in these multilateral forums.
In the ITU, authoritarian regimes are gaining ground. Draft proposals that aim for centralised control to fight ‘cybercrime’ or to regulate information services are submitted. These measures would seriously hamper the freedoms of internet users.Europeneeds a strategy around the next ITU meeting to fight authoritarian proposals and to preserve an open internet.
Another regulatory proposal, introduced by the European telecom sector, aims to let providers of internet services, like Google or Spotify, pay for each connection that is established with end users. Search engines or digital music services would be required to pay fees to providers of data networks for an internet connection.
These extra revenues are supposed to be invested in infrastructures and network maintenance. Introducing these kinds of models causes collateral damage. Net neutrality risks being compromised if online service providers are forced to pay for end-user access. Start-ups could end up paying huge amounts of money when their service suddenly becomes a success. Internet access will be unaffordable for internet users in developing countries, or simply fewer people would want to connect.
We don’t need a new global legal framework governing the internet, but human rights need protection and online and competition laws also should be enforced in the digital economy. Yet, internet governance through UN bodies is not the solution. Here, authoritarian regimes can put their mark on the internet at the expense of citizens who enjoy access to information online where they can freely assemble and express themselves. The current multi-stakeholder model is the most flexible governance model to balance different interests. We have to invest in improving this model and prevent the domination by a few. Policymakers should use their democratic obligations to prevent backroom deals and to ensure democratic oversight.
The EU has an important task in preventing the further virtual land grab and should strategise to coordinate joint actions with EU member states around internet governance. Besides that, the EU should lead in promoting and defending people’s digital freedoms, both inEuropeand abroad. For that we need to focus on the rapidly changing world around us with more ambition.
Marietje Schaake is rapporteur for digital freedom in the EU external actions report