Council of Europe and European Commission initiatives on Internet freedom

By EDRi · December 14, 2011

On 8 December, the Council of Europe launched a very important Declaration
on “the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and
association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online
service providers.” The text picks up many of the themes and priorities of
EDRi’s study, published in January of this year, on the “Slide from
Self-Regulation to Corporate Censorship”.

The text explains that “although privately operated, they are a significant
part of the public sphere through facilitating debate on issues of public
interest; in some cases, they can fulfil, similar to traditional media, the
role of a social “watchdog” and have demonstrated their usefulness in
bringing positive real-life change”.

In the context of the positive obligations of states party to the Convention
on Human Rights to defend the rights in that instrument, the Declaration
explains that “direct or indirect political influence or pressure on new
media actors may lead to interference with the exercise of freedom of
expression, access to information and transparency, not only at a national
level but, given their global reach, also in a broader international

The resolution explains that “the companies concerned are not immune to
undue interference; their decisions sometimes stem from direct political
pressure or from politically motivated economic compulsion, invoking
justification on the basis of compliance with their terms of service”. The
text concludes by alerting “member States to the gravity of violations of
Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which might
result from politically motivated pressure exerted on privately operated
Internet platforms and online service providers, and of other attacks
against websites of independent media, human rights defenders, dissidents,
whistleblowers and new media actors.”

Four days after the Council of Europe Ministerial Declaration was launched,
European Commissioner Vice President Neelie Kroes launched a “no disconnect
strategy” to “uphold the EU’s commitment to ensure human rights and
fundamental freedoms are respected both online and off-line, and that
internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) can remain
a driver of political freedom, democratic development and economic growth.”

The ambition of the announcement is quite limited in the first instance –
only addressing breaches of freedom of communication where “Europe perceives
that a vibrant and open Internet is not the norm or where grave human rights
abuses take place.” While this lack of ambition is likely to come in for a
degree of criticism, it is nonetheless a step forward and should be
recognized and applauded as such.

One reason for the lack of ambition is the large range of restrictive
measures imposed by European countries in generally unsuccessful attempts to
enforce copyright. Currently, these include policies such as Internet
blocking, abuses of personal data and legal coercion of unconvicted
citizens. As if to underline the self-consciously contradictory nature of
the EU’s policies in this area, Commissioner Kroes asked the unrepentant
German (alleged) plagiarist Mr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenburg (originally
described as representing US pressure group that is not on the EU
transparency register) to work on the project with her. Mr zu Guttenberg is
best known for being shown to have copied his PhD thesis and, as a result,
having to resign from his former post as German Defence Minister. He is also
infamous for, together with his wife, launching a proposal for mandatory web
blocking in Germany.

Commissioner Kroes’ obviously refined sense of irony failed to impress a
large number of online commentators, with a flurry of criticism appearing on
social media and on the Commissioner’s blog.

Commissioner Kroes’ response to criticism (13.12.2011)

EDRi study – “Slide from Self-Regulation to Corporate Censorship”

Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Declaration on the protection of
freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association
with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service
providers (7.12.2011)

European Commission press release – Digital Agenda: Karl-Theodor zu
Guttenberg invited by Kroes to promote internet freedom globally

Mr zu Guttenberg’s Phd scandal (1.03.2011)

Mrs zu Guttenberg’s child protection activities (19.10.2011)

Legal coercion of EU citizens for copyright enforcement

(Contribution by Joe McNamee – EDRi)