Attacks to Freedom on the Internet come back in more subtle tones
May 20, 2014
freedom of speech
Attacks on internet freedom raise concerns over censorship, privacy, and freedom of speech.
In Europe, the European Supreme Court has ruled that search engines, such as Google which holds 90% of the European market, must remove results that users find "irrelevant" about themselves. Meanwhile, in the US, a judge has given internet service providers the right to charge extra fees from "large bandwidth consumers" like Netflix, Hulu, Aereo, etc. Both decisions appear to infringe on freedom of speech, protected in the US by the first amendment and in Europe by the Declaration of Human Rights. The question arises: Between freedom of speech, network neutrality, and privacy, which individual right holds more legal strength?
Let's start with network neutrality. New York Times columnist, David Carr, addressed this in his insightful article, discussing how the American regulatory body, the FCC, is treading dangerous waters by siding with companies that sell internet access. The American court's decision potentially leads to a multi-tiered internet, with varying speeds.
The European decision, on the other hand, sets a worrying precedent for censorship. Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, expressed his shock at the European ruling, describing it as one of the most significant censorship decisions he has ever witnessed. The concern is that a corrupt politician could demand the removal of information about them from Google searches due to "irrelevance," and the decision of relevance lies in the hands of a potentially biased judge.
The counter-argument is that Google's search engine immortalizes the ephemeral. A compromising photo from your past could surface during a job search. Even if the photo is personal and you wish it to remain private, it could be publicly accessible, violating your privacy rights.
With the European decision coming from the continent's Supreme Court, an immediate appeal is not possible. The ruling puts the rights of freedom of speech and privacy at odds. It contradicts the declaration of human rights, which itself often infringes on privacy rights.
So, what are the potential solutions?
In the case of the FCC ruling, the problem is clear. Internet service providers are leveraging their position to maximize profits, a typical cartel behavior. As end users who pay monthly internet bills, we should demand that providers do not manipulate our internet speeds. The potential ramifications are alarming. A provider could limit access to your preferred search engine if it refuses to pay additional fees or restrict fast access to certain information sources. This violates two sacred principles of the American constitution: freedom of speech and free market competition. If the US continues down this path, it risks evolving into a semi-democratic state.
The European situation is more complex. Freedom of speech should never be compromised, but individual privacy should also be protected when it pertains to personal and intimate matters. The European Union will have to determine the boundary between personal privacy and limitations to freedom of speech.
The ideal scenario allows people to live privately, without others knowing their personal details. However, public figures should not be able to hide their wrongdoings, lawsuits, or criminal history. Striking this balance is a challenge for democracy, but one it must confront to maintain its integrity.