Controlling the Internet. What are states cooking?

Our lives are moving to the digital space. This is a new conundrum both for individuals and for society. We must think of new rules with regards to things that we could have not imagined 15 years. 15 years ago we were thrilled to share photos, to comments on each other’s posts and to have fun online.

Things are not the same anymore. I find myself being sick of social media because of the toxic content, but also because of the way in which social media has become synonymous with the Internet. And the new and sometimes weird questions that we have to answer now. Are we entitled to ask companies to take down stuff about us? How do we hunt online predators? Does anybody have the right to say anything without any repercussions? Can the platforms block us with no apparent reason?

These apparent unanswerable questions have been addressed in various parts of the globe, not only in the EU or Romania. Our former minister in charge of digitalization floated a potential obligation that Facebook open a local office, considering its arbitrary decisions to block accounts and take down posts. In Romania, the discussion has stopped. Other states have gone further and even further in their attempts to control this digital space, which is often times a threat to the state.

The Freedom on the Net report monitors these developments on a yearly basis and, this year, I thought I would take a look at what states are cooking  nowadays to control the Internet.

So, what’s it all about?

  • examples of laws that regulate content, social media activity, the digital space etc

Why do we need to read about this?

  • because we need to take a look at others to see what models we should take over and what models we absolutely shouldn’t

Source? Freedom on the Net, 2021

India (online space - partially free)

Rules for Information Technology are the new regulations for platforms acting as intermediaries. They entail obligations, such as a mechanism of grievances by which users can complain directly to these companies. The law applies to social media platforms with more than 5 million users, which must have an in-country office and local officers. The required time for the answer to notice to eliminate content is 36 hours, while the Chief Compliance Officer can be held personally liable and can even end up in jail for up to seven years.

Indian users have the right to be notified when their content is eliminated and must receive a clear justification for the decision. The issue is that these notices to eliminate content are based on a vague definition (the qualification done by Freedom House) of what forbidden content means, such as expressions that undermine public order, decency, morality or question the sovereignty of the state.

Australia (online space - free)

Online Safety Act is the Australian attempt to regulate the digital space, which fights against cyberbullying and aims to protect kids online.

Users can make official complaints, and the Online Safety Commissioner will investigate and issue notices to eliminate the reported content. The targeted platforms have 24 hours at their disposal to eliminate the content once they have received the notice. The Commissioner can also issue an order for ISPs to block certain violent websites for a 3-month period, but the officer can extend this order indefinitely. Freedom House observes that the officer’s powers are quite large, considering that he/she does not need to offer an official reason for notices to eliminate content.

There’s another law that caused uproar in Australia and around the world. It’s called News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code and it stipulates that digital platforms (a term not actually defined by the law) must negotiate a fee to be paid to mass media services in exchange for sharing their news stories. Actually, they must enter a mediation to set some tariffs across the industry.

Mass media services must register to be able to participate. Australia’s score in the composite index Freedom on the Net actually went down a point in diversity and reliability because, for a week in February 2021, Facebook blocked the Australian news as a response to this law, managing to block also NGOs or even the Australian weather service. With this move, they managed to obtain a series of favourable amendments to this law. Google sat quietly and respected the law.

Brazil (online space - partially free)

(I know, you’re expecting some bad things from this one, but I’ll start with the good). Brazil launched a defence and strategic communications satellite in 2017, which has been also used to supply Internet to rural and remote areas. Three thousand schools enrolled in the program in 2019, reaching a number of 11,000 in 2020.

And now the bad stuff. Two laws are especially problematic. The first regards the renewal of a national security law, whose amendments have been seen as threats to free speech and association, because they basically criminalize deceitful mass communications. Generally, this law is used to threaten journalists and bloggers.

The second bill tackles the fake news phenomenon. The punishments are aimed at those who generate and distribute content that would undermine vague ideas, such as social peace or the established economic order. Moreover, the use of manipulated content to poke fun of political candidates is punishable by a fine up to 2 million dollars to be paid to the affected candidate by the one that may have benefited from the joke. One question here: WHAT? A satirical tweet by a journalist aimed at some pastors led to a fine of 2000 dollars paid to one of the targets.

Turkey (online space - not free)

Turkey is so close to Europe, yet so far away… This year, it drove up the price of communication devices and services by raising taxes on such goods, in a move meant to limit the capacity of citizens to afford an Internet subscription (and, consequently, to potentially say damaging things about the regime).

Turkish authorities recognize “the right to be forgotten”, but they changed the stipulation so as to allow politicians to request the elimination of damaging content. Moreover, a new law, Social Media Regulations Law asks social media platforms to have an in-country representative that needs to answer to notices of content elimination in 48 hours’ time. All platforms with more than 1 million daily users must open a local office, and the large platforms conformed to the decision only after they were issued fined. Speaking of platforms, streaming services are obligated to obtain a license and Netflix and Amazon Prime also conformed.

Blocking content is done in an opaque manner and it is done mostly by the regulation authority and not by the courts. Even when courts ask for content to be taken down, they don’t offer a reason, which makes the appeal process useless.

The surveillance of the online space is not done only by laws. The Anti Cyber Riot Squad is a group of experts and IT engineers tasked to guard the “Digital Fatherland”. Also, the Cyber Crescent is another unit working to combat cybercrime, how ever it might be defined. Note the nationalist tone in both names.

The United States (online space - free)

I will end this series with the best country in the world, the land of the free, and so on.

So free that angry citizens entered the Capitol to stop the validation of the election. This is actually the starting point of the Freedom on the Net report, along with the reports of surveillance, harassment, and arrests coming from some anti-racist protesters. But, to be honest, reading the US report has been a profoundly different experience than the ones mentioned above.

What the US is cooking online is not much actually, because the traditional mentality has been that the online space remains unregulated (what, some might say, led to the Capitol riots in the first place). They even have a regulation called Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which actually eliminates the net neutrality principles that state that all traffic should travel at equal speeds. Practically, with this regulation, the ISPs can increase or decrease the speed of some traffic in their infrastructure, depending on their interests. This order was actually issued under Trump, but Biden has not come around to repeal it yet. The funny thing is that  net neutrality rules represent the true freedom on the Internet, according to the actual people who helped create the Internet.

The attempt to block WeChat and TikTok is also a major focus in the US report. It’s an attempt because a federal judge blocked the order on account of protecting freedom of expression. Biden eliminated this order anyways, but has called for measures to evaluate potential national security risks stemming from some apps that might be under the influence of foreign adversaries.

Generally, the problem with the US online space is the sheer concentration of services along the entire chain that creates the Americans’ online experience, from ISPs that keep merging to the social media giants.

What is cooking?

When looking at these examples, the tendency is to localize services, to materialize tech giants in a space confined by borders so that they can be regulated.

The local representative and the obligation to maintain in-country officers for compliance are measures that can be found in almost all of the examples presented here. The US is the exception, the source of tech giants.

The main conclusion of the Freedom on the Net report is that there is a veritable struggle between tech giants and the states with regards to Internet regulation. This is also clear in these examples, but I think the reasons are much more profound and not necessarily limited to the idea that authoritarian regimes are on the rise and they aim to control freedom of expression. Essentially, the free, cross-border, digital space that is expansing is threatening the 150-year old existence of the nation state. On this backdrop, tech giants represent the materialization of this tendency. The mere fact that Facebook blocked content from Australia and obtained concessions to a law is a testament to the idea that tech giants are veritable actors that threaten states. In other areas, companies respect the rules and are complacent, but only to a certain extent, since their target is to become global, not national. They join forces with states, but it’s like the fable of the scorpion and the toad

Ultimately, it’s the citizens that suffer, as their digital identities and selves are very different from what was proclaimed in the famous declaration of independence of cyberspace: Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth [..] Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.

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Digital Policy este o platformă de analize de politici publice digitale, axată pe nivelurile european, național și local.

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