The EU’s latest assault on internet freedom

Soon online speech will be regulated by Brussels.

Andrew Tettenborn

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As things stand, what you can and cannot say on the internet is largely a matter for national law, decided by national parliaments. This means that every nation in Europe currently has different laws and practices.

But the EU has quietly been moving to change this. Take last year’s Copyright Directive, which more or less demands the introduction of automated content filters on social-media platforms. And last month, it became clear that an impatient Brussels wants to turbocharge this process by bringing internet regulation to the EU level, where it can pull the necessary strings.

The EU Digital Services Act sounds innocent on the surface. It is ostensibly aimed (in Euro-speak) at enhancing the so-called Digital Single Market by harmonising national laws and removing competitive barriers. Member states have not yet been consulted or made aware of any specific proposals in the Act. But thanks to the leak of an internal briefing to the Digital Single Market steering group, obtained German digital freedom activists Netzpolitik, we can see what Brussels has planned.

One of the EU’s key concerns, as the briefing makes clear, is the lack of EU-wide rules and regulations covering what people can see and say online. The fight against online hate speech, for example, is said to be ‘expensive and inefficient across the Single Market’. There are also no EU-wide rules on online advertising, nor does the EU have oversight of online services as a whole.

The prescription? EU regulation of the internet. EU law should cover the ‘entire stack of digital services’, from internet service providers (ISPs) and social media to search engines and cloud services. ‘Uniform rules for the removal of illegal content such as illegal hate speech’ need to be made binding across the EU, says the briefing. Online advertising, including political advertising, should come under EU control, too. And there must be a ‘dedicated regulatory structure to ensure oversight and enforcement of the rules’.

Currently, EU law has explicit safeguards against ‘general monitoring obligations’ – meaning member states are prohibited from asking ISPs and social-media platforms to automatically filter and monitor content for undesirable material. In a beautiful piece of EU doublespeak, this state of affairs should continue, but ‘specific provisions governing algorithms for automated filtering technologies – where these are used – should be considered, to provide the necessary transparency and accountability’. Put another way, automatic filtering should continue to be banned, but filtering of an automatic nature should be both required and extended. Clear?

These proposals are worrying for several reasons. For one thing, you can’t have rules for the compulsory removal of illegal hate speech unless you have rules defining hate speech. At present, there is healthy political argument about what hate speech is, how to balance free speech and offence, and indeed if there should be any prohibition on hate speech at all. Yet the logic of the EU proposal is to take this vital debate out of the national democratic process entirely, and instead entrust it to unelected EU technocrats.

Platforms will be issued with take-down notices for hosting hate speech. The EU also plans to regulate what it calls ‘harmful content’. It suggests that, due to the ever changing nature of ‘harms’, EU-approved codes of conduct for ISPs might be more appropriate. While it is too early to predict the strictness of the codes or the heavy-handedness of the regulator, ominously, the briefing cites the UK’s extremely censorious Online Harms White Paper and France’s fake-news law with apparent approval.

Then there are the calls for EU-wide rules about political advertising. Although this is supposedly aimed at ‘micro-targeted disinformation campaigns’, this should not deceive anyone. Essentially, this is a demand for overall EU oversight over political speech. The omens aren’t hard to spot. Highlighting EU corruption or waste, backing Brexit or supporting a populist politician could easily be labelled as ‘misinformation’.

There is no doubt that new rules and regulations will have a chilling effect on online speech. ISPs, social-media sites and other platforms have businesses to run. Few will want to risk intervention from regulators. Still fewer will chose to defend the free-speech rights of individual users when an EU regulatory body, armed with possibly draconian sanctions, makes a takedown request. Companies will find it far simpler and safer to take down any material that is likely to draw complaints.

The Digital Services Act will allow the EU to set the acceptable parameters of ‘free speech’ online. ISPs and European websites will fall over themselves to avoid publishing anything that makes Brussels uncomfortable. Internet freedom is in serious danger.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

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eli Bastenbury

16th August 2019 at 6:19 pm

HANA JINKS, I was not responding to your comment, turnip.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 7:10 pm

Lol…l wasn’t replying to your’s either, Eli. Sorry for the confusion.

eli Bastenbury

17th August 2019 at 5:26 pm

Haha, sorry for the confusion.

Hana Jinks

17th August 2019 at 6:33 pm

steve moxon

16th August 2019 at 5:25 pm

The extremely disturbing aspect of the ‘harms’ proposal is that the principal source of major harm today in in the form of malicious, hate-mongering, radically false information, is the UK Government, given that there has been a complete acceptance across all of UK government of a most extreme all-encompassing politics known as ’identity politics’ (often mis-labelled ‘PC’), which in origin and development has itself been nothing but hate-mongering (as I’ve researched myself).
It is, therefore, with wry humour that readers of the report might well see the phrase “… disinformation to undermine our democratic values and principles” and “… undermine our democratic values and debate”, and that supposedly it “… threatens our way of life in the UK, … by reducing trust and undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration.”
This is precisely what the UK Government does day-in-day-out across all of its activities. It is, then, highly disturbing that the report includes a section titled ‘Disinformation’, in which there is the aim: “… ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree and can also mean that users perceive a story to be far more widely believed than it really is.”
Specifically, for example, this is what the UK Government itself does with respect to the non-scientific project, completely politicised internationally as the IPCC, that is the new doctrine of supposed anthropogenic climate change — actually an extension (the apotheosis) of ‘identity politics’ contempt for and indeed hatred towards the mass of ordinary citizens. The UK Government’s principal media outlet, the BBC (its supposed independence being a transparent fiction, as concretely shown by criminal sanction for non-payment of the licence fee), avowedly refuses as policy to give a platform to actual climate science by climate scientists, instead labelling this as ‘climate change denial’! Flabbergasting.
A major facet of totalitarian ‘identity politics’, extreme feminism, evidently informs the section headed ‘Harm: Abuse of public figures, box 14’. Proper surveys, widely disseminated and discussed (of which the UK Government has no excuse to be in ignorance) show that most abuse is not towards women, but men; and that most abuse towards women is from other women. The report cites a survey of supposed impact only on female journalists! Where is any comparison with impact on men?! And then is included a survey of journalists … at the Guardian! This newspaper is the most politically biased media outlet in the UK, being ‘PC’-fascism central, as it were. Of course its female journalists receive disproportionate abuse: they incite it, in writing extreme-feminist nonsense.
The root of misinformation here is the acceptance of the entirely non-scientific notion of misogyny, which is also employed under the label of ‘harassment’. That the contemporary notion of misogyny — not the former and still current general understanding that some individuals of both sexes have a contempt for the opposite sex through a history of failed romance — is without any foundation whatsoever, is well-researched (and to which I’ve added).
To reiterate: the greatest source of on-line ‘harms’ in the form of malicious, hate-mongering, radically false information, is the UK Government itself. It is a highly pernicious development that the UK Government, in being here the chief villain, intends to assume the role of chief ‘policeman’.

John Hamilton

16th August 2019 at 11:41 am

Although I agree with the hideousness of any EU-wide internet regulation, one has to point out that it is Britain that is leading the way in terms of censorship – as this essay alludes to when it mentions the EU briefing citing Britain’s Online Harms White Paper with approval. The problem is first and foremost with our own rulers, not the EU. Until our own ruling class is somehow overthrown, censorship is inevitable, whether in or out of the EU – indeed, leaving the EU may well free our ruling class to be even more censorious and authoritarian than they have been hitherto.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 12:24 pm

The only way to be rid of the traitorous tories and labour is to vote UKIP. Gerard Batten hates the eussr, the UN, and fake news.

Ven Oods

16th August 2019 at 2:02 pm

Isn’t Batten the ex-leader, now? Or has there been a counter-coup?

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 2:16 pm

Oops, l think you might be right. I still like him, tho. Lol.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 2:19 pm

The point remains, too. Those particular parties are our enemies. They are unrepresentative and only interested in exploiting us.

John Hamilton

16th August 2019 at 3:58 pm

On the contrary, in the recent Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, Ukip came below the Monster Raving Loony Party. Once one starts to poll below the Monster Raving Loony Party, I think it’s high time to call it a day. In any case, I could never support a party that gets into bed with a thug like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. As a true conservative, I believe in the right of every Englishman to a fair trial, and I believe passionately in the presumption of innocence. Mr Yaxley-Lennon has twice acted in ways that could prejudice a jury against defendants during an ongoing case. He claims to stand up for England, but tramples on all England’s most precious traditions. I doubt he believes in anything except the Tommy Robinson brand, and any political party with pretensions to being taken seriously would have nothing to do with him.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 4:28 pm

UKIP were doing ok, and then fake news stepped in with a smearing. I’m not stuck on Ukip, anyway, just that tories and labour are our enemies.

You’re completely wrong about Tommy Robinson. The trial was over, and the bbc had already revealed the identities of the two defendants. The establishment are inflicting diversity-communism on us, and Tommy makes too much noise against the importation of the third-world forbthem to allow it to continue, soo they used the judiciary to fit him up.

Things are nothing as they seem.

John Hamilton

16th August 2019 at 4:53 pm

“You’re completely wrong about Tommy Robinson. The trial was over, and the bbc had already revealed the identities of the two defendants.”

Not so. Reporting restrictions had been put in place until the end of a series of linked trials involving 29 defendants. Yaxley-Lennon broadcast footage from outside the court whilst the jury in only the second trial of the series was considering its verdict. I’m no friend of the BBC, but they had no problem obeying the reporting restrictions. Furthermore, he had harassed a defendant in several ways. He obviously likes to think of himself as a martyr, but there’s no reason for anyone else to be fooled. If we throw away the presumption of innocence then we might as well dispense with trials altogether and decide everyone’s guilt or innocence by a text vote on Sky News. English traditions matter in a way a man like Mr Yaxley-Lennon will never comprehend. In any case, the guy is incapable of obeying the law. He has convictions for fraud and assault. A political movement that elevates him to the status of a popular tribune is dead before it’s started.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 6:28 pm

Just stop it, John. You’re an ignorant and ill-informed liar.

https://youtu.be/EfEZH-y1Og4

Stop watching fake news. Just stop it.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 10:00 pm

https://youtu.be/Z1pc30nCTQM

Is this your game, John?

John Hamilton

17th August 2019 at 2:57 pm

Thank you for your reasonable and not-at-all-hysterical opinion.

Hana Jinks

17th August 2019 at 5:17 pm

You have a fair point, John, but would a more measured response have made any diff? Did you watch what the lady said in the first vid?

You’ve basically parroted the msm lies and irrelevancies about TR, and I’ve produced the vid to prove it. He should be given a medal for what he’s done, and gets this!!?? Those clowns had already been found guilty, and TR wasn’t doing anything different to any other reporter worldwide. And he wasn’t even allowed to be tried before a jury of his peers, and you prattle on about being British. How British is it for the establishment to be fitting people up?

So what is it exactly about TR that you find so offensive, John? Was it the way he exposed to criminal negligence of the politicians, police and social services? How about the way he’s put his life on the line for total strangers? Cos that seems like a pretty British value to me. Have you seen the vids where he’s walking around his hometown and gets accosted by the goat-molesters just for being Tommy?

Are you British?

Hana Jinks

17th August 2019 at 6:48 pm

How British is it to be doing what these creeps are doing at the 2min, mark, John? Fake news has pretty much everyone completely brainwashed.

https://youtu.be/HbxMR3c2Pws

Amelia Cantor

16th August 2019 at 10:40 am

The EU’s latest assault on internet freedom. Soon online speech will be regulated by Brussels.

Good. There is no “freedom” to incite hate and spread lies, any more than there is “freedom” to murder and rape.

Hate speech is not free speech. Just ask the Jewish community, the LGBTQIA+ community and the Gypsy / Roma community, who are all at the forefront of the fight to stamp out hate. They know where hate speech leads: the Holocaust. And they have the full support of all other vulnerable minority communities, from the Muslim community to the Furry community.

John Hamilton

16th August 2019 at 6:05 pm

“Hate speech is not free speech. Just ask the Jewish community, the LGBTQIA+ community and the Gypsy / Roma community, who are all at the forefront of the fight to stamp out hate. They know where hate speech leads: the Holocaust. And they have the full support of all other vulnerable minority communities, from the Muslim community to the Furry community.”

I don’t know if this is meant seriously (the ‘Furry’ ‘community’?), but if it is then it commits the fallacy of taking a complex issue and pretending that it’s quite simple, through the rhetorical strategy of lumping together everything you disagree with under the rubric of ‘Hate’ – as though this were some kind of precise intellectual concept rather than (what it is in actuality) highly amorphous and open to endless interpretation. If someone criticises the Pope or Catholicism, is this ‘hate’? What if someone ridicules Islam or the Prophet? If someone opines that too many immigrants are being allowed into the country, is this ‘hate’? What if someone simply expresses a personal preference for living in an English-speaking community which broadly shares the same culture? Your statement simply elides the real issues at stake, which is who (if anyone) is to decide what is and is not sayable in a given society.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 10:07 pm

John, meet Amelia. She’s a crackin’ lass. Amelia, meet John. You two should get on well.

Robert Spowart

16th August 2019 at 10:06 am

But the definition of “Hate Speech” is simple.
Hate Speech is what the person making the complaint says it is.
Unless that person making the complaint is an extreme Right Wing Fascist of course.

Or white.

Or Christian.

And if he were to be a male edition of these, then his mere existence would be classed as a Hate Crime.

Warren Alexander

16th August 2019 at 8:47 am

And yet there are still those who claim to believe that the EU has no plans to be become a federal super-state.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 4:21 am

We’re free to offend. There isn’t any such thing as hate-speech. People are waking up to the creeps at the eussr. Everyone wants out.

Bronk’s Funeral

16th August 2019 at 8:56 am

Can you explain what sort of ‘offensive’ things you relish being able to say?

eli Bastenbury

16th August 2019 at 9:39 am

F*** off?

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 12:18 pm

I don’t say anything offensive. That’s the point. And if you wanna take offense at me calling you a goat-molester, then you probably shouldn’t be molesting goats.

Julie Smith

16th August 2019 at 5:25 pm

What is and isn’t ‘offensive” has been expanded to such a degree that it’s becoming difficult to speak to anyone without being haunted by the fear of them deciding you’ve offened them. Simply asking someone to do somehting like “pass the salt please” could be deemed as offensive in a “what do you think I am, your slave?” kind of way.

Just like calling folks Nazi’s at the drop of a lichee renders the truly horrific history banal, so does being offended by everything.

Hana Jinks

16th August 2019 at 7:13 pm

Eli. My comment was direscted at people that use the words homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia.

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