2014 witnessed a growing struggle in Europe over internet censorship and content removal policies, and 2015 is set to host similar debates.
The recent call for content removal following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris speaks to the growing concern in Europe over how to regulate what users can see on the internet. As the interior ministers of France, Latvia, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the U.K., and Sweden jointly called for the policing of content that “aims to incite hatred and terror,” and for such content’s removal “where appropriate,” a mentality seems to be rippling throughout the continent that leans towards tighter censorship rules rather than relaxed ones.
Indeed, the U.K. government moved in November to heighten the role of collaboration and data retention with internet service providers. Legislation called for ISPs to remove or block “extremist” content, and to retain customer metadata for two years. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights called the bill an intrusion of privacy, and decried certain elements of the plan:
The committee notes that the proposed scheme would require private service providers to collect and retain data on each and every customer. A requirement to collect and retain data on every customer just in case that data is needed for law enforcement purposes is very intrusive of privacy, and raises an issue of proportionality… The proposed scheme clearly limits the right to privacy. The committee therefore considers that the scheme must be sufficiently circumscribed to ensure that limitations on the right to privacy are proportionate (that is, are only as extensive as is strictly necessary).
It is also impossible to ignore the work of the E.U. last year in regards to its mandates on Google. The “right to be forgotten” policy instituted in 2014 puts Google in charge of removing content at the request of users and businesses. Tech leaders as a whole have expressed dismay at such a policy, which effectively makes Google the publisher and the policer of web content. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, for one, warned that such a mandate borders on “censoring history.”
A point of interest here is that Europe has historically been seen as a proponent of internet freedoms. Despite the fact that no country is without its web monitoring and data surveillance structures following the Snowden leaks of 2013, many countries in Europe have championed the freedom of web use, and in general have less strict censorship policies than, say, many Asian countries. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden have welcomed digital-based services and developments like the use of bitcoin. These measures to restrict access to content and to remove it altogether appear to work in the opposite manner for the future of the free and open internet. While it is arguable that the “free and open” internet has never been a reality, it is undeniable that content removal policies work against such an idea.