How do you regulate ‘the internet’? That is a question that is becoming increasingly urgent. Last week we learned that Facebook use had a direct impact on violence against refugees in Germany. Russia and Iran try to influence our opinions through social media accounts. And that Google keeps track of your location data via your mobile phone – even if you have set that you do not want it .
How we do not have to regulate the internet especially in China. Google and Facebook are simply forbidden. Search engines and chat functions that are active in the country are censored on an unseen scale. Even photographs of Chinese candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize were censored in private messages between users. Technology is now a powerful means to control the citizen. If you do not behave on social media, your so-called ‘social credit score’ gets a bite, so you can not get a loan or travel as easily.
The United States then excel in the opposite direction. Since the nineties, there has been a belief that the internet must in no way be regulated. That would affect innovation and democracy was the adage. There is no comprehensive privacy legislation such as in Europe, so personal data is for sale for the largest bidder. The only rules that should apply are the rules of the free market.
Fortunately, there are alternatives
For many people, ‘the internet’ has now become synonymous with the services of a handful of large tech companies such as Google and Facebook. But the internet is much broader than that. It is essentially a series of ‘stupid’ cables that make it possible to transmit information quickly and safely. These cables also make us globally connected and mutually dependent. This is precisely the key to smartly regulate the internet. Governments must make every effort to keep the technical infrastructure of the internet intact and open, but at the same time they must better regulate the behavior of large players using that structure. We will only find smart solutions if we are guided by the basic principles of liberal democracy, such as transparency and accountability of companies, fair competition, and the protection of our fundamental rights such as privacy and free expression.
A good example of smart regulation is the legislation that preserves net neutrality, where the Netherlands was a forerunner in Europe. With that law you prevent internet providers from becoming more than a neutral channel of data and information. For example, they are not allowed to offer faster access to their own services to the detriment of competitors, or to charge extra money for offering Netflix or WhatsApp. We have successfully ensured that this also became European legislation. Unfortunately, on the authority of President Donald Trump, net neutrality in the US has been abolished, giving large internet suppliers much more power. As a kind of gatekeeper they can now determine which services will receive preferential treatment or not. That means more power for businesses and less choice for consumers. It also puts the ax at the root of the open internet. That is a big step in the wrong direction.
In the European Union we have rules that limit large tech companies. Google received two billion-dollar fines because it misused its dominant position. European privacy legislation is leading the world, and forced the big tech giants to adjust their practices. That is not enough, however. We need more insight into how the algorithms of the large tech companies work to keep them really responsible for their actions. At the same time, we must ensure that European states never abuse the Internet as an instrument for national security goals, for example by weakening encryption: the essential method of securing data. Anyone who weakens this, exposes our digital society to major security risks, which do not outweigh the alleged benefits for intelligence services.
The extent to which we in the open societies around the world manage to keep the rule of law online also will have to ensure that we do not lapse here in Chinese or American situations. The EU must, therefore, be fully involved, and must also promote the values-based approach in its foreign policy. That is something I am trying to do in the European Parliament.