Can Europe Make It?

Is Big Brother watching?

Marzena Sadowska
17 February 2014

February 11 was “the day we fought back”: internet action supported by 402 NGOs from around the world, 50 experts, 3 elected officials and ordinary internet users. On its website,, offers a very simple statement: Governments worldwide need to know that mass surveillance, like that conducted by the NSA, is always a violation of our inalienable human rights. Among the supporting organizations are Mozilla, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Just one day later, on February 12, the European Commission called for a change in management of the internet. Currently there is only one body responsible for coordination of global systems of unique identifiers, warranting its stability and secure operation – it’s called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). It’s based in California, and has an operation agreement with the US. In other words, the US is the centre of the power behind the scenes of the internet. In the light of the last few months’ revelations concerning surveillance of the web by the National Security Agency, it has become clear that this is not a good solution any more.

The European Commission stated that it will seek ways to globalize control of the internet on the basis of the multi-stakeholder model. At the same time, the Commission opposed the idea of the UN body gaining control of the internet – this is an option favoured by, among others, Russia and China. It’s probably worth pointing out that these countries are placed respectively at nos. 148 and 175 out of 180 countries on the 2014 World Press Freedom Index.

"These will be make or break years for deciding for what sort of Internet we want to have", said EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, adding that Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like. Before that can happen though, EU countries must agree between themselves what kind of future they want for the internet. It might be difficult to fix on, given that the level of freedom of speech and control over the internet varies considerably across the European Union.

There is also the issue of transparency, or rather the lack thereof, in EU talks about internet freedoms. That was a problem during the clandestine talks (2008-2011) about ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), about which European citizens only heard thanks to WikiLeaks. The final draft was published in April 2010, and final text only a year later. The stated idea behind the treaty was to create a common legal framework for targeting copyright infringement on the internet, counterfeit goods and generic medicines. The secrecy and lack of clarity in the treaty itself raised serious concerns and brought a wave of protests. As a result neither European Union, nor the 22 members who signed the treaty, decided to ratify it.

At the beginning of February, the European Commission announced a third antitrust settlement with Google. Like the previous two, it was proposed by Google, but EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia seems to sugget that this is the final one and there are only formalities left to settle. Unlike the earlier proposals, this one was not subject to a formal review by rivals and critics.

The settlement will end the antitrust search investigation against the company and it looksas if in the EU, as in the US, Google will escape any significant fines or penalties. The core of the settlement is Google’s presentation of links to alternative sites and competitors besides its own results on the search results page. The fact that the new version of the settlement was not consulted raised concerns among Google’s competitors, but also among EU Commissioners who must vote to approve the request to make the settlement final. There is still a chance for at least cracking open a window for discussion.

Is the European Union moving in the direction of protecting users’ rights over companies’ interests and censorship of the web? It is, at least partially. Is it enough? Won’t it be too late? Hard to say. But with the lack of transparency we encounter on this issue - I’m not as optimistic as I would like to be.

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