From Subversive to Submissive: the internet

The corridor where WWW was born. CERN, ground floor of building No.1

Free-Speech advocates were aghast—and data-privacy campaigners were delighted—when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) embraced the idea of a digital “right to be forgotten” in May 2014. It ruled that search engines such as Google must not display links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about people if they request that they be removed, even if the information is correct and was published legally.

The uproar will be even louder should France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, soon decide against Google. The firm currently removes search results only for users in the European Union. But France’s data-protection authority, CNIL, says this is not enough: it wants Google to delete search links everywhere. Europe’s much-contested right to be forgotten would thus be given global reach. The court… may hand down a verdict by January.

The spread of the right to be forgotten is part of a wider trend towards the fragmentation of the internet. Courts and governments have embarked on what some call a “legal arms race” to impose a maze of national or regional rules, often conflicting, in the digital realm
The internet has always been something of a subversive undertaking. As a ubiquitous, cross-border commons, it often defies notions of state sovereignty. A country might decide to outlaw a certain kind of service—a porn site or digital currency, say—only to see it continue to operate from other, more tolerant jurisdictions.

As long as cyberspace was a sideshow, governments did not much care. But as it has penetrated every facet of life, they feel compelled to control it. The internet—and even more so cloud computing, ie, the storage of vast amounts of data and the supply of myriad services online—has become the world’s über-infrastructure. It is creating great riches: according to the Boston Consulting Group, the internet economy (e-commerce, online services and data networks, among other things) will make up 5.3% of GDP this year in G20 countries. But it also comes with costs beyond the erosion of sovereignty. These include such evils as copyright infringement, cybercrime, the invasion of privacy, hate speech, espionage—and perhaps cyberwar.

IIn response, governments are trying to impose their laws across the whole of cyberspace. The virtual and real worlds are not entirely separate. The term “cloud computing” is misleading: at its core are data centres the size of football fields which have to be based somewhere….

New laws often include clauses with extraterritorial reach. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will apply from 2018 to all personal information on European citizens, even if the company holding it is based abroad.

In many cases, laws seek to keep data within, or without, national borders. China has pioneered the blocking of internet addresses with its Great Firewall, but the practice has spread to the likes of Iran and Russia. Another approach is “data localisation” requirements, which mandate that certain types of digital information must be stored locally or remain in the country. A new law in Russia, for instance, requires that the personal information of Russian citizens is kept in national databases…Elsewhere, though, data-localisation polices are meant to protect citizens from snooping by foreign powers. Germany has particularly stringent data-protection laws which hamper attempts by the European Commission, the EU’s civil service, to reduce regulatory barriers to the free flow of data between member-states.

Fragmentation caused by government action would be less of a concern if other factors were not also pushing in the same direction–new technologies, such as firewalls and a separate “dark web”, which is only accessible using a special browser. Commercial interests, too, are a dividing force. Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants try to keep users in their own “walled gardens”. Many online firms “geo-block” their services, so that they cannot be used abroad….

Internet experts distinguish between governance “of” the internet (all of the underlying technical rules that make it tick) and regulation “on” the internet (how it is used and by whom). The former has produced a collection of “multi-stakeholder” organisations, the best-known of which are ICANN, which oversees the internet’s address system, and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which comes up with technical standards…..

Finding consensus on technical problems, where one solution often is clearly better than another, is easier than on legal and political matters. One useful concept might be “interoperability”: the internet is a network of networks that follow the same communication protocols, even if the structure of each may differ markedly.

Excerpts from Online governance: Lost in the splinternet, Economist, Nov. 5, 2016

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