France has appointed a new minister for digital, while the UK wants to set up a new regulator for the internet. Both governments want to play more active roles in controlling the online world.
Emmanuel Macron, the French President, nominated his political advisor Cédric O to the position of Secretary of State for the Digital (Secrétaire d’État chargé du Numérique), a post vacated when the predecessor quit to prepare for next year’s municipal election. O has been instrumental in running the president’s agenda to engage the digital heavyweights, including arranging the meeting for Zuckerberg, and organising the French senior civil servants to observe in Facebook’s headquarters.
O opened his story to the journalists from AFP and L’Express by claiming that he was in “100% agreement” with Zuckerberg regarding the stronger role the states should play in regulating the internet. “There is the demand from citizens, ‘please guarantee that when I’m on the Internet, my right is respected’. But the right should not be defined by the platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, etc.), ” O said. The government will also update laws to give it the legal foundation to play such a role, including bringing the current regulations on audio-visual sectors to the digital age, O told the interviewers.
The French government has recently revived the traditional measures to play a more assertive role in the economy, and has extended the approach into the digital domains in particular. Recently it decided to go ahead with the 3% tax on the internet heavyweights, the nicknamed “GAFA tax”, without waiting for the EU to reach consensus on the common digital market.
On the other side of the Channel, the British government, already having a department overseeing digital as its portfolio, is mulling over the set-up of a new regulator, either being part of the existing government structure or a new government body altogether.
This is necessary to consider the current problems surrounding the internet giants. On one hand, these companies have not been regulated properly either as a platform or content publisher. On the other hand, these platforms have been used to facilitate crimes including terrorist attacks. However, there is also the danger that the government is overstepping the lines to become a moral arbiter. The first “problem” of internet identified in the “Online Harms White Paper”, jointly endorsed by the Digital Secretary and the Home Secretary, states that “illegal and unacceptable content and activity is widespread online”. While “illegal” can be properly defined, “unacceptable” is a subjective judgment and a judgment that should not made by the government.
To couple such subjective assessments with the government’s demand that ISPs and ICPs should have the obligation to block content or face heavy fines smells similar to the measures adopted by the censorship regimes of China, Russia, Iran, and a few other countries. A side effect of such assertive measures could be driving some internet users down the route to evading government monitoring, for example this could be a boost for the VPN business.
As we said when Zuckerberg asked the governments to share his burden and blame, having governments control internet content, be it French or Chinese, would be a double-edged sword, and one edge would run against the internet’s spirit of liberating access to information and freedom of expression, and against what Sir Tim Berners-Lee demanded that governments should “keep all of the internet available, all of the time; and respect people’s fundamental right to privacy.”
This almost rolls back the years to what the late Christopher Hitchens once called “an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forces, idea and books have to be formulated and written by individuals.” (“Siding with Rushdie”, 1989) It would be the biggest irony of internet’s brief history if, after beleaguering the Chinese government for its heavy-handed approach towards internet, the western governments are all going down the China route, albeit 20 years later.