Internet Rights

I had the privilege of participating in a round-table discussion (without the table) at UCL on October 20th. The event was organised by the very active Student Human Rights Programme and chaired on the day by Ben Allgrove of Baker & McKenzie. The topic was ‘Internet and E-Rights: challenges and perspectives’, and you can read the full report here and a brief note on the UEA Law School website here.

My contribution was on the subject of network neutrality and its relationship with the right to communicate. It drew on some of the material appearing in a future issue of the Journal of Internet Law (more on that soon), as well as the discussion of the right to communicate explored in my doctoral thesis. I argued that there was a need to consider the overall legal environment for ISPs, particularly the relationship between immunity as a mere conduit and the degree of neutrality regarding content, and discussed the various reviews in progress in the UK, EU and US, criticising the first two as lacking in a full appreciation of non-economic issues including fundamental rights. I was rewarded with some very interesting questions, including the method(s) of financing broadband expansion and the case for prioritising particular forms of traffic.

The theme of rights was introduced by Andrew Murray (website), who has published his suggested ‘Bill of Rights’ on his blog. This is a very interesting contribution and comes at a time where – at the Internet Governance Forum and elsewhere – the idea of drafting or amending rights is very much back on the agenda. Some (but not all) of his suggestions do related to the net neutrality debate and his draft can serve as the basis for a very interesting discussion, including on whether there is a need for ‘Internet-specific’ instruments as well as how any such rights would be monitored and enforced. In his talk, Andrew also assessed a number of current proposals for Internet rights, such as that of the proposed Bill of Digital Rights in Brazil.

The other two presentations, like mine, looked at a single topic rather than the overall picture about rights. Emily Laidlaw‘s talk on Google started with a summary of Google’s current position in the UK and elsewhere, followed by an overview of the power and potential for manipulation of search results. She suggested that there is a need to consider the social responsibilities of search engines as gatekeepers and also the need for public forum, freedom of expression and regulatory analyses of search. She has also blogged about the event here and even posted her slides. Lawyer Stratis Camatsos (Pappas & Associates, Brussels) discussed social networking in the context of privacy and data protection, suggesting that further work was needed to ensure that the activities of social networking sites are compliant with EU law in this regard, but also discussing (in the Q&A) whether the current system of data protection law was itself appropriate in the light of user practices and habits expressed through ‘sharing’.

I did enjoy the event, and the wide range of questions from the audience. For me, it highlighted the mature stage at which cyberlaw/Internet law has arrived, but also the number of issues yet to be resolved or dealt with which are still quite ‘fundamental’, whether rights-based or otherwise. It was also an opportunity to consider the relationship between specific debates of Internet law and policy and other current themes in international law and in human rights. Andrew Murray commented that the event was typically ‘international’, given the panel (an Australian chair, and speakers from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Greece), while said chair Ben Allgrove also pointed out the focus of all speakers on beneficial forms of ‘regulation’, in contrast with other views (past and present) that might be more suspicious (often with good cause) of regulatory intervention.

One single comment

  1. Oisín says:

    Interesting. The difficulty with any discussion of internet rights is, I’d suggest, twofold.

    First, human rights are traditionally held by the individual against a specific state, whereas internet activity is global. Creating a common bill of rights that works outside of a given jurisdiction is a massive, and in light of recent developments, highly controversial task. It would require inter-governmental co-operation, and governments are unlikely to co-operate to reduce their own powers vis-a vis their citizens.

    Second, much of the conflict concerning the future of the net is between service providers and users, rather than between users and states. In jurisdictions where legal persons are entitled to constitutional and human rights (such as the US and Ireland) any attempt to increase users rights at the expensive of service providers (particularly, say where strict net neutrality or search neutrality rules were adopted) would amount to (or would likely be presented as) a clash between service providers’ property rights and users free expression rights.

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