Balkanising the web
Government oppression and ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation threatens internet freedom, argues Eddie Ford
We have heard many times from cyber-libertarians, and their fellow thinkers on the left, that the internet will usher in a new utopian age of untrammelled freedom of expression. No boundaries, stateless, leaderless - everyone having an equal voice.
Of course, there is a certain truth to this - the internet is essentially free and a form of ‘real-time’ communication, obviously representing a marvellous technological advance. A tool to use. Communists would be the very last people to shun or belittle new technology, especially when it comes to the means of communication: we embrace anything which facilitates a freer and greater circulation of ideas. Alex Callinicos (‘Stalinicos’) of the Socialist Workers Party may mutter about the “dark side” of the internet, but that was just the instinctive reaction of a bureaucratic control-freak when confronted by a seemingly unstoppable flow of dissent. His equivalents throughout history have made similar complaints, whether it was about the seditious Caxton printing press, trains, paperbacks, radios or (in the case of the North Korean dictatorship) photocopiers.
Having said that, what needs to be realised is that the internet is not an astral force that floats above our base and fallen world - gloriously disconnected from the global capitalist system or governments. It is not necessarily indestructible, let alone a magical technology that bypasses the need for ‘old-fashioned’ forms of political organisation. The same old problems of class society and the cash nexus remain. There are various agents that want to tame and subvert the internet’s emancipatory potential - even start closing the gates if it comes to the crunch.
We are not just talking here about the obvious example of state snooping by the likes of the US National Security Agency with the active collaboration of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, etc - what else would we expect them to be doing? Promoting world peace? Rather, in recent times we have seen distinct moves towards the Balkanisation of the web, and in turn further governmental control and censorship. We already have China’s ‘Golden Shield Project’ (aka the ‘Great Firewall of China’) that was initiated in 1998 and began active operations five years later - to which Google almost immediately capitulated. The size of its ‘internet police’ is estimated to be some two million, the largest in the world. Interestingly, legislation first introduced in 1997 and expanded upon since, stipulates that no-one may use the internet for “making falsehoods or distorting the truth”, “spreading rumours”, “destroying the order of society” or “injuring the reputation of state organisations” - sounds a bit like a charge sheet from those who currently dominate Manchester Left Unity. Naturally, only “licensed print publishers” in China have the authority to deliver news online.
Similarly, Iran has attempted to censor the internet, especially when president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 - with the regime targeting social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The ruling AKP party in Turkey has also made partial moves to suppress these outlets, Recep Erdoğan regularly raging against the ‘immoral’ website, YouTube, and so on. Russia too appears to be heading in the same general direction. Last month the duma passed the first reading of a bill against the dissemination of “extremism”, effectively banning the forwarding, reposting or retweeting of undesirable information. The Kremlin, of course, claims the legislation is purely for “data protection”, but in reality it could muzzle social networks and create a closed and censored version of the internet within the borders of Russia. If passed, the new rule will not formally come into operation until September 2016, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the Putin government will act early against sites that show no signs of complying - the state telecoms agency, Roskomnadzor, now having the authority to force local internet providers to restrict access to services.
Brazil also has plans to ‘localise’ the internet, portraying this as a radical move to break free of Yankee imperialism. Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president and former urban guerrilla, has an ambitious plan that includes constructing submarine cables that do not route through the US, building internet exchange points in Brazil, creating an encrypted email service through the state postal service and having Facebook, Google and other companies store data about Brazilians on servers in Brazil. And in April this year she actually signed into law the Marco civil da internet, the so-called internet ‘Magna Carta’.1 The new law explicitly applies to any company anywhere that has at least one Brazilian user, has servers located in Brazil or runs an office there - ie, just about every internet company on the planet. Once the law enters into effect next month, a Silicon Valley-based firm could, for example, be penalised for complying with US data protection laws that come into conflict with the Marco civil. Failure to comply can result in fines of up to 10% of Brazil-origin revenues or service blockage in the country.
Despite its progressive gloss, Rousseff’s ‘Magna Carta’ is yet another step towards Balkanisation - after all, she is the head of a bourgeois government more concerned with wasting obscene amounts of money on white-elephant football stadiums, whilst workers can barely afford to travel to work or even eat properly (and Brazil still lost 7-1). Why should we trust anything she says? In order to have a healthy future, the internet, the network of networks, must have a fundamentally global foundation - not be carved up into smaller and smaller pieces or be increasingly subject to short-sighted and reactionary local/national laws.
Now we have the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ that was upheld by the European court of justice on May 13. The ruling originally came about when the court ordered Google to remove a link to a 15-year-old newspaper article about a Spanish man who has spent years trying to suppress the embarrassing truth that in 1998 his house was repossessed to pay off his social security debts.2 Imagine the shame. Of course, no-one had even heard of Mario Costeja González until he won the ‘right to be forgotten’.
Anyhow, the decision was based on an interpretation of article 17 of the new European Data Protection Regulation, which replaces the outdated 1995 European Union Data Protection Directive - stipulating that people who are mentioned in the data have the right to “obtain from the controller the erasure of personal data relating to them and the abstention from further dissemination of such data”, particularly relating to information about the person when they were a child and/or when the data is no longer relevant or necessary for the purpose it was originally collected.3 In its wisdom, the court defines ‘data controllers’ as “people or bodies that collect and manage personal data” - and Google is defined, admittedly with some logic, as a data controller.
Following the ruling, Google implemented a system whereby individuals can make a legally binding statement, requesting particular links deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” be removed from searches on their name - though the original web pages with the ‘offending’ information still remain if you know how to find them. Within a week of the ruling, the corporation had been bombarded with 70,000 requests from across Europe to have information removed from more than 276,000 web pages - although now the number of such requests is down to about 1,000 per day. On July 2, for example, Google removed links via searches on an unspecified name to pages from 2010 and 2011 on The Guardian and Daily Mail sites. The stories covered a football referee in Scotland, Dougie McDonald, who admitted lying about his decision to rescind a penalty in an October 2010 match in the Scottish Premier League.4 However, the links were quickly reinstated and can be found by a simple search for McDonald’s name.
This removal and rapid reversal has thrown a spotlight on those newly hired by Google to vet requests. It is understood that a supervised team of ‘paralegals’ - not professionally trained lawyers - have been given the task of examining every request and making a decision on whether to approve it. A recipe for chaos and confusion, you might think. Stirring the pot, the information commissioner’s office in the UK says that it expects to receive complaints “soon” from people who have had requests to remove personal details from Google’s index of links turned down.
Matters were brought to a head by a complaint from Robert Peston, BBC News’s esteemed business editor. He complained that Google had “cast me into oblivion” after the corporation received a notification that a blog post he wrote in 2007 about the dodgy dealings of Merrill Lynch and its chief executive, Stan O’Neal, had been removed (nobody else had been named in the very short article). Actually, Peston’s post had not been “removed” from Google. If you search for ‘Merrill Lynch’ or ‘Stan O’Neal’ or ‘Robert Peston’ - or any combination of these - the 2007 post still appears: O’Neal did not request any removal and would have been refused anyway because he is not a European citizen.
Rather, the truth is somewhat stranger - insofar as it is possible to establish the real facts. Google’s UK director of communications, Peter Barron, on June 30 popped up on the BBC to chirpily say that the ‘removal’ request came from an “ordinary member of the public” who left a comment on Peston’s blog. Even odder, maybe, is that if you Google ‘Oren Vinishavsky’ - who made an implicitly racist post about greedy minorities - the 2007 Peston article comes top of the list. Yet if you do the same for several of the other contributors who made totally inoffensive remarks, you get the following disclaimer: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe”. Hmm …
You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to strongly suspect that Google deliberately chose to interpret the new law in the way it did precisely so as to highlight the inherently absurd and irrational nature of the ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation - which it understandably opposes. The European court of justice has opened up a writhing can of worms, and Google would much prefer if they were shoved back in the tin. It seems fairly obvious that Google - no paragon of virtue, to put it extremely mildly - wants to pile on the pressure by one means or another to make the EU change or revoke the law.
But for all the complexities and absurdities, legal or otherwise, the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation sets a dangerous precedent when it comes to internet freedom. The Guardian has already established that in some cases Google is removing links for any searches that include terms associated with the complainants’ names - not just those which include the name only. Showing what could happen, the paper has been contacted by members of a pressure group about Collins and Bone - a now-defunct UK company, which in 2010 sought investors for a business aiming to “renovate” houses and then rent them to students. An investigation by the British government’s insolvency service determined that Liam Collins and David Bone should be disqualified from directorships for a total of 28 years.
Collins, a former semi-finalist on Britain’s got talent - that alone should ring alarm bells - demanded a few days after the ECJ ruling that Google remove links to a blog critical of him and his business partner. But, as Google did not by then have a process for dealing with such claims, it was instantly mirrored at the Chilling Effects website, which enables recipients of ‘cease and desist’ notices to submit them to the site and receive impartial information about their legal rights and responsibilities. The blog attacking Collins and Bone still appears in Google’s UK results, but campaigners and others who claim they were defrauded fear that it may soon be removed. They have good reason to be worried.
We on the left must say no to the Balkanisation of the internet or the imposition of judge-made law that threatens freedom of expression. We do not recognise the right not to be embarrassed any more than the right not be offended - either just live with it or show how your accusers have got it wrong.
2. The Guardian May 13.