On 8 December, the Council of Europe launched a very important Declaration on "the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers." The text picks up many of the themes and priorities of EDRi's study, published in January of this year, on the "Slide from Self-Regulation to Corporate Censorship".
The text explains that "although privately operated, they are a significant part of the public sphere through facilitating debate on issues of public interest; in some cases, they can fulfil, similar to traditional media, the role of a social "watchdog" and have demonstrated their usefulness in bringing positive real-life change".
In the context of the positive obligations of states party to the Convention on Human Rights to defend the rights in that instrument, the Declaration explains that "direct or indirect political influence or pressure on new media actors may lead to interference with the exercise of freedom of expression, access to information and transparency, not only at a national level but, given their global reach, also in a broader international context."
The resolution explains that "the companies concerned are not immune to undue interference; their decisions sometimes stem from direct political pressure or from politically motivated economic compulsion, invoking justification on the basis of compliance with their terms of service". The text concludes by alerting "member States to the gravity of violations of Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which might result from politically motivated pressure exerted on privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers, and of other attacks against websites of independent media, human rights defenders, dissidents, whistleblowers and new media actors."
Four days after the Council of Europe Ministerial Declaration was launched, European Commissioner Vice President Neelie Kroes launched a "no disconnect strategy" to "uphold the EU's commitment to ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected both online and off-line, and that internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) can remain a driver of political freedom, democratic development and economic growth."
The ambition of the announcement is quite limited in the first instance - only addressing breaches of freedom of communication where "Europe perceives that a vibrant and open Internet is not the norm or where grave human rights abuses take place." While this lack of ambition is likely to come in for a degree of criticism, it is nonetheless a step forward and should be recognized and applauded as such.
One reason for the lack of ambition is the large range of restrictive measures imposed by European countries in generally unsuccessful attempts to enforce copyright. Currently, these include policies such as Internet blocking, abuses of personal data and legal coercion of unconvicted citizens. As if to underline the self-consciously contradictory nature of the EU's policies in this area, Commissioner Kroes asked the unrepentant German (alleged) plagiarist Mr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenburg (originally described as representing US pressure group CSIS.org. that is not on the EU transparency register) to work on the project with her. Mr zu Guttenberg is best known for being shown to have copied his PhD thesis and, as a result, having to resign from his former post as German Defence Minister. He is also infamous for, together with his wife, launching a proposal for mandatory web blocking in Germany.
Commissioner Kroes' obviously refined sense of irony failed to impress a large number of online commentators, with a flurry of criticism appearing on social media and on the Commissioner's blog.
Commissioner Kroes' response to criticism (13.12.2011)
EDRi study - "Slide from Self-Regulation to Corporate Censorship"
Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Declaration on the protection of
freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association
with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service
European Commission press release - Digital Agenda: Karl-Theodor zu
Guttenberg invited by Kroes to promote internet freedom globally
Mr zu Guttenberg's Phd scandal (1.03.2011)
Mrs zu Guttenberg's child protection activities (19.10.2011)
Legal coercion of EU citizens for copyright enforcement
(Contribution by Joe McNamee - EDRi)