Legislators with little knowledge of internet privacy will do more harm than good.
The protest against the American Stop Online Piracy Act recently, where Wikipedia and 7000 other websites went dark for 24 hours, made two things plain.
First, online activism can be effective. Before the protest, 31 members of Congress opposed the act. After the protest, that number swelled to 122. The bill died overnight.
More importantly, the protest emphasised that the internet is not the Wild West. Domestic laws and international treaties pervade everything we do online. And bad laws can cause profound damage.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is an example of legislative over-reach. SOPA would have given the US government broad powers to shut down access to foreign sites that were suspected of hosting material that breached copyright. This would have given governments the power to interfere with the internal workings of the internet. Such a power would have been an unconscionable threat to free speech.
Yet SOPA is not alone. The internet is surprisingly vulnerable to laws that, with good intentions or bad, have the potential to stifle online liberties. Take for instance, the European Union’s proposed ”right to be forgotten”. Changes to data protection laws now being considered by the European Parliament would give internet users the power to force websites to delete information about them.
There would be privacy benefits from this law. No question it would be lovely if we could make websites remove embarrassing photos or uncomfortable facts years after we uploaded them.
And yes, we need to keep pressure on social networks to protect our privacy. Too many companies are reckless with user data. Yet the EU’s plan goes way too far. A legislated ”right to be forgotten” would be, like SOPA, a threat to freedom of speech. These new rules would, according to the American legal scholar Jane Yakowitz, ”give EU residents an unprecedented inalienable right to control and delete facts that were once voluntarily communicated”.
In the age of social media we all happily put information about ourselves in the public domain. A right to be forgotten is actually an obligation for others to forget things they’ve been told.
Apart from being unworkable (erasing stuff from the internet is a lot more complicated than politicians seem to believe), this new obligation would envelop the internet in a legal quagmire.
The law would turn every internet user into a potential censor, with a veto over everything they’ve ever revealed about themselves. Every time media organisations referred to freely obtained information, they would have to be sure they could prove they did so for a ”legitimate” news purpose. This would create enormous difficulties for journalism. Censorship to protect privacy is just as dangerous as censorship to prevent piracy.
But unlike SOPA, there has been no outcry about these new rules. No blackout of popular websites, no mass petitions.
SOPA was driven by American politicians in the thrall of an unpopular copyright lobby. The European data protection rules are being driven by social democrats claiming to protect people’s privacy. And, in 2012, privacy is a value that many people claim to rate above all others.
By contrast, free speech seems daggy and unpopular. Even our self-styled civil liberties groups have downgraded their support for freedom of speech. Now other rights – privacy is one, the right not to be offended is another – are seen as more important. So these new laws could slip through with disastrous consequences.
Should Australians care what the European Parliament does? Absolutely. The big internet firms are global. If a legislature in one country or continent changes the rules of the game, those firms have to comply. The easiest way to comply is by making global policy changes, not regional ones.
And regulations introduced overseas have a habit of eventually being introduced in Australia. Already our privacy activists are talking up the EU scheme.
Whatever the EU decides about a right to be forgotten, it will have significant effects on the online services we use in Victoria.
Free speech isn’t the only problem with the EU’s proposed privacy laws. As Jane Yakowitz points out, people trade information with corporations all the time – for discounts or access to free services. No one compels us to share stuff on the internet. We share because we think we’ll get something out of it. The new right to be forgotten would make such trades virtually impossible. It could cripple the information economy overnight.
Governments have always struggled to legislate for the online world. Not only do politicians have little understanding of the technological issues, but the internet doesn’t take very well to regulation: according to one old tech saying, ”the net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it”. So legislators over-compensate.
The internet is complex, borderless and dynamic. Laws are inflexible and heavy-handed. Too many attempts to protect privacy or combat copyright infringement take a brickbat to freedom of expression and internet liberties.