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.”…


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