It’s become difficult to escape legislation on Internet regulation. In Europe, and across the Atlantic to the US, the governance of cyber-land hasrisen to the top of the political agenda. In January the European Commission released legislation to re-write the data protection directive, while the Commission and the European Parliament are also haggling over the little-loved anti-counterfeit treaty Acta.
Meanwhile, the Obama White House published its own ‘Internet bill of rights’ in February and blocked two anti-piracy acts from going through Congress after a concerted online campaign involving Wikipedia and Facebook earlier this year. Last week, the US Congress actually ignored protests by the Obama administration and backed legislation aimed at helping to thwart electronic cyber-attacks on critical US infrastructure and private companies. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) will, in the unlikely event that it gets through both houses of Congress and Presidential approval, encourage companies and the federal government to share information collected online.
One thing is for sure – the backlash against Internet regulation has made politicians on both sides of Atlantic very nervous. In the Pirate Party – which already has several MEPs, planning to run a pan-EU campaign at the next European elections and, incredibly, is currently polling in third place with around 10% in Germany – a political party has been spawned in response to the debate on the future of the Internet. Considering that the Internet has been widely available and used for less than 15 years, this is a remarkable development.
But should we be surprised?
Probably not. The world-wide web is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most valuable inventions of the 20th century. Ever since Tim Berners-Lee, the civil servant who invented the web, gave it to the world for free, it has certainly changed the way we work and live. It has – for the most part – also been an overwhelming force for good and is now considered a public service with access to it a human right. But, unlike virtually every other sphere of life, the Internet is a largely unregulated legal ‘wild west’. It is perhaps inevitable that it is now becoming politicised.
At the root of the debate are two polarised arguments. If we were going to caricature them we would say that the first contends that everything on the Internet should be accessible and free; while the other holds that people involved in illegal downloads or file-sharing are breaking the law and should be punished.
This (albeit very broadly) is not completely dissimilar to the classic libertarian vs authoritarian argument which emerges whenever the question of how much personal data should be required by government comes up.
It reminds me of the (unsuccessful) attempts by the last Labour government in the UK to implement compulsory ID cards with biometric personal data. The two polar opposite arguments were along the lines of: ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear’, and, on the other side, ‘why should the government/police etc have my personal data?’ Although the policy was in successive party manifestoes, fears about the potential cost of the scheme, as well as an effective and well-resourced anti-ID card campaign, killed it off. It was no surprise when the incoming Conservative/Liberal coalition quickly abandoned the idea.
Somehow, I don’t think that attempts to regulate the Internet will be quietly abandoned. The online world is simply too big, too valuable and, if left unprotected, too dangerous. But it is clear that, like reforms to the welfare state or the tax system, regulating the Internet is now politically charged.