The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, today gave a speech in which he suggested that ‘An open internet is the only way to support security and prosperity for all.’
It was in most ways a fine speech, suggesting and supporting all kinds of things that anyone interested in the internet would support. Support for freedom of expression, for privacy and for human rights online. There’s only one problem: the government which he represents doesn’t really seem to support those kinds of rights and freedoms for its own people.
Let’s take a look at some of his particular claims. He suggests that there is a ‘growing divergence of opinion and action between those countries seeking an open future for the internet and those who are inching down the path of state control.’
‘Some appear to be going down the path of state control of the internet: pulling the plug at times of political unrest, invading the privacy of net users, and criminalising and legislating against legitimate expression online.’
Well, though he backtracked after protest, even David Cameron suggested pulling the plug on the net during the riots in the summer of 2011, and his words have been echoed a number of times. As for ‘invading the privacy of net users’, anyone who has followed the debate over the Communications Data Bill – the ‘Snoopers’ charter’ – will understand that by monitoring each and every activity of ALL UK internet users, it would take ‘invading the privacy of net users’ to pretty close to the ultimate degree. If William Hague believes what he says about privacy, he certainly wouldn’t allow his government to back that kind of a bill.
What about ‘criminalising and legislating against legitimate expression online’? Well, this is a government that has been seriously considering legislating for a system of default blocks on legal ‘pornography’ sites. That’s not the only example of possible legislation against legitimate expression online supported by the government – the Digital Economy Act, though pushed through with embarrassing haste and lack of debate by the last Labour government, is being actively supported by the current coalition. It not only allows for – and supports – web-blocking, but it also allows for the idea of blocking access for individuals suspected of piracy. Suspected, that is, not with anything proven – and with the sort of evidence that is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. If Mr Hague believes in freedom, in giving people the opportunity to express themselves online, he can’t possibly support the idea of stopping people having access to the internet just on the basis of suspicion, can he?
Ultimately, Hague suggests that:
‘We believe that efforts to suppress the internet are wrong and are bound to fail over time. Governments who attempt this are erecting barricades against an unstoppable tide, and acting against their own long term economic interests and their security.’
In that, I wholeheartedly agree – but, Mr Hague, your own government is one that is attempting to suppress the internet, and is attempting to erect barricades against an unstoppable tide. Stop it, please, for our sakes – and ultimately, for yours. Repeal the Digital Economy Act. Abandon your plans for opt-in porn-blocking. And, most importantly, give up on the Communications Data Bill. If you believe in freedom on the internet, that freedom should begin at home.
Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) is a lecturer in the UEA Law School, specifically in the fields of Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law. His research relates most directly to human rights and the internet, and in particular privacy rights.