EU: Towards a European Global Online Freedom Act

The European Parliament has passed a proposal (571 in favor, 38 against) to treat Internet censorship by national governments as a trade barrier. The proposal was submitted by European Parliament member (MEP) Jules Maaten of the Dutch conservative VVD party. The adopted Maaten amendment calls on the European Commission, “to specifically deal with all restrictions to the provision of Internet and information society services by European companies in third countries as part of its external trade policy and to consider all unnecessary limitations to the provision of those services to be trade barriers.

The proposal will now pass to the European Council. If adopted as a European Union (EU) law, the proposal could have an impact on future trade negotiations between the EU and governments engaged in Internet censorship. “As the adopted amendment on treating internet censorship as a trade barrier is currently only the wish of the Parliament it is not yet part of EU legislation. We will nonetheless keep on pressuring the European Commission and the Council to formally adopt such a proposal in EU legislation,” Jethro van Hardeveld, the political assistant to Jules Maaten, said in an email.

On November 7th, 2007, a public hearing on “Censorship & cyber-dissidents. Freedom on the internet in authoritarian states” was organized by Jules Maaten and two other MEPs from the Alliance for Liberals And Democrats for Europe (ALDE Group) in Brussels. The hearing included voices from cyber-dissidents from Tunisia and China, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), and the Dutch ISP XS4all, on “the increasing grip of governments in repressive states on the content of the Internet.”

The hearing also called for a European version of the Global Online Freedom Act (PDF) in the United States: “The EU will now have to make supporting journalists and cyber dissidents a priority. Free speech must remain the basis of the Internet. Europe should follow the American example where legislators are working on a Global Online Freedom Act. We urge the European Commission to follow this example and come up with a European version of this Act,” Jules Maaten declared.

In a recent parliamentary question on February 21, 2008, Jules Maaten asked whether the Commission is, “willing to invest 20 million euros in technologies able to develop and distribute anti-censorship tools and services which could help Internet users breach electronic firewalls set up by China, Iran and other closed societies?”

I sent some questions for an interview to MEP Jules Maaten which were answered by his political assistant Jethro van Hardeveld:

Sami: Can you give us a brief background about this Internet anti-censorship proposal?

Jethro van Hardeveld: Since 2006 our office has been active on the issue of internet censorship. We started working on internet censorship with the resolution and debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2006 on ‘freedom of expression on the internet’. The motivation for working on the issue of online censorship is that free speech must remain the basis of the Internet and that human rights should also be protected online.

Sami: Why this focus on the “great firewall” of China? Does China represent the primary target of this initiative or does it also include all other countries engaged in online censorship – even those commonly described by the EU as “moderate Arab regimes” such as Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, etc.?

Jethro van Hardeveld: The proposal is not focussed at any specific country. It calls on the European Commission to deal with censorship in third countries through it´s external trade policy. It is in no way solemnly directed at China. In a press statement (also attached) from Jules Maaten however we did mention the ‘Great Firewall of China’ as it it is a concrete example and one of the most well known cases of censorship.

Sami: The European Union's association agreement with countries like Tunisia explicitly requires them to observe human rights and political freedom, however, the EU did not establish a well-functioning mechanism to address continuing human rights abuses by those governments, so how you will deal with the online censorship? Are we going to see the EU boycotting products or imposing sanctions?

Jethro van Hardeveld: We are calling for the EU to adopt a European version of the American Global Online freedom Act. This EU legislation should cover and deal with online censorship by European internet companies in third countries. This legislation should also contain provisions obliging European internet companies to place their servers in non authoritarian/western states, in order to guarantee that will we not get another ‘Shi Tao’ case (the arrests of cyber dissidents ). Furthermore, the European Commission more or the less admitted in an answer to written questions by Jules Maaten that the self regulation in the European internet industry has failed. The European Commission answer: …”the Commission welcomes this clear and unequivocal statement and calls for the industry to work in close cooperation with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on a code of conduct to prevent and counteract cyber repression. The Commission regrets that, so far, no progress has been made on this issue.”…

17 comments

  • […] Original post by Sami Ben Gharbia […]

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  • Sami – I’ve been trying to get details of the proposal that seems to have passed at the European Parliament.

    All links seem to refer to the arstechnica.com article, but as yet – there are no details on the EU parliament site. Would be good to know what the wording of the proposal was, and who voted against…

    cheers!

    net

  • @ Internet Freedom,

    I’m publishing below the attachements I received from Jethro van Hardeveld. Hope it helps:

    Attachements:
    ——————

    The adopted Maaten amendment:
    28a. Calls on the European Commission to specifically deal with all restrictions to the provision of Internet and information society services by European companies in third countries as part of its external trade policy and to consider all unnecessary limitations to the provision of those services to be trade barriers;

    Press statement Jules Maaten:
    “The ‘Great Chinese Firewall’ is an international trade barrier. American internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as European companies such as Wanadoo, Telecom Italia and France telecom are forced to censor their services in authoritarian states. This can be an unusual but effective approach to protect the freedom of expression on the internet”.

    —————————-

    Written questions by Jules Maaten:
    Against the background of the public hearing on ‘Censorship & Cyber-dissidents: Freedom on the Internet in authoritarian states’ held on 7 November 2007 at the European Parliament in Brussels, and with reference to the debate which took place in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 6 July 2006 on ‘Freedom of expression on the Internet’ (P6_CRE(2006)07-06) and the resolution with the same title (P6_TA(2006)0324) adopted on that date:
    1. Is the Commission prepared to draw up a directive along the lines of the Global Online Freedom Act in the US, inter alia in order to protect cyber dissidents against being reported by western companies to authoritarian regimes?

    2. Does the Commission intend, in its trade negotiations with foreign governments and within the WTO, to treat Internet censorship as a trade barrier, and, during the forthcoming EU/China summit, to raise the issue of Internet censorship, partly in terms of a restriction on trade?

    Answers from the European Commission:

    E-5794/07EN
    Answer given by Mrs Reding
    on behalf of the Commission
    (29.1.2008)

    1. The Commission attaches great importance to freedom of expression on the Internet. The commitment of the Commission to protect this freedom has been stressed on several occasions, in particular in the context of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The Commission has been instrumental in having the WSIS reaffirm the primary importance of democracy and of the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the freedom to receive and access information.

    In the Communication on the follow up of the WSIS[1] in 2006, the Commission welcomes this clear and unequivocal statement and calls for the industry to work in close cooperation with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on a code of conduct to prevent and counteract cyber repression. The Commission regrets that, so far, no progress has been made on this issue. The need to respect fundamental human rights and the need to protect freedom of expression was also highlighted at the inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Athens in October 2006. In this context, it was also outlined that a key objective for the Commission is to keep the Internet as an open and censorship-free zone where all the world’s citizens can communicate freely with each other without needing to seek the permission of anyone else, including their governments, in line with internationally recognised fundamental rights. The importance of the issue was reaffirmed again at the second Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro in November 2007.

    2. The Commission regularly addresses the issue of freedom of expression (on the Internet and otherwise). In the context of the EU-China relations, referred to by the Honourable Members, the Commission addresses this issue in the human rights Dialogue that occurs twice per year. The matter was also raised during the EU-China summit on 28 November 2007.

    The Commission is determined to promote the freedom of speech in its international relations and to ensure that nothing in the trade agreements it negotiates with third countries, including its bilateral trade agreement under negotiation with third country governments, could be used to constrain or limit in any way the freedom of speech.

    [1] COM (2006) 181 final.

    —————————————————–

    Press statement Jules Maaten:

    Jules Maaten urges the European Commission to be more pro-active: “Free speech must remain the basis of the Internet. Europe should follow the American example where legislators are working on a Global Online Freedom Act. We urge the European Commission to follow this example and come up with a European version of this Act.”

    “Countries such as China and Cuba, Burma and Belarus are placing tighter restrictions on the use of the Internet to prevent freedom of expression. For example Yahoo has, in China, given in to pressure to hand over information on it´s clients and stirred up a hornets’ nest. European firms face the same issues, examples being Telecom Italia in Cuba and Wanadoo – which belongs to France Telecom – in Tunisia. It is intolerable that Western businesses should be helping repressive governments to trample human rights underfoot.”
    Most recent questions from Jules Maaten to the European Commission (asking for funds to develop anti censorship software):

    Parliamentary questions
    21 February 2008
    E-0852/08
    WRITTEN QUESTION by Jules Maaten (ALDE) and Karin Riis-Jørgensen (ALDE) to the Commission

    Subject: Internet censorship and the European Global Online Freedom Act
    Follow-up questions to answers (E‑5794/07) given by the European Commission on Internet censorship:
    1. Is the European Commission willing to develop a European Global Online Freedom Act?
    2. Is the European Commission willing to invest 20 million euros in technologies able to develop and distribute anti-censorship tools and services which could help Internet users breach electronic firewalls set up by China, Iran and other closed societies?

  • this is a link to the proposal; just got it from Jethro:

    http://tinyurl.com/27qt6h

  • Hi All, I wrote a post here http://www.nartv.org/2008/02/28/framing-censorship/ that covers this issue somewhat. I’m skeptical of efforts to reframe censorship as a trade barrier rather than freedom of expression as a human right.

  • […] Global Voices Artikkelen ble først publisert på engelsk av Global Voices, en nett-tjeneste som plukker ut og oversetter blogginnlegg fra hele verden. […]

  • […] over the role of Western multinationals in China’s web filtering. The European Union is currently discussing the imposition of trade barriers for firms that conduct business in nations that restrict…. A number of Chinese dissidents, based in the United States, have announced they will sue Yahoo!. […]

  • The fight was upgrade in Asia.

    “Most B2B technology companies have a clear set of competitors they’re battling. But for some (usually early stage) tech companies, there are no other companies to fight: they’re inventing a market. The only competitor is the inertia of the target audience. At first glance, it sounds like a great position to be in. Never facing a head-to-head competitor. Being free from the never-ending features arms race. But in reality, these can be the toughest marketing challenges of them all”

    GlobalSaler.com CEO, Xin said that.

  • […] Turkey’s EU ambitions seem paradoxical to the infringement on the freedom of press and speech of its citizens, residents and visitors by banning sites like this. This is not China. This has to stopped. Good thing the EU’s making a blacklist of censoring countries and are creating software for people in censoring countries to use to overcome the censorship (Global Online Freedom Act). […]

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