Confronting the dark side of the Internet

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Members of Anonymous have launched a hidden service on the dark web for sharing skills in hacking and the use of anonymity software. [Tony Webster/Flickr]

From enabling mass incursions of privacy, to connecting terrorists and paedophiles, to facilitating cybercrime and lending anonymity to bullies and trolls, the net has a darker side, which has to be addressed, writes Thorbjørn Jagland.

Thorbjørn Jagland is Secretary General of the 47-nation Council of Europe. He submitted this op-ed ahead of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance which takes place in Brussels on 9-10 June.

Much of the last two decades has been spent marvelling at the possibilities created by the Internet. The ability to communicate immediately and across vast distances has collapsed time and space. Worldwide, many public institutions are now subject to unprecedented scrutiny, thanks to digital information-flows and greater transparency. Internet connectivity has been at the heart of the knowledge economy and remains key to global growth: according to one estimate, extending the access seen in developed economies to developing countries could generate 140 million new jobs.

Yet this week, when activists, politicians and tech representatives from across Europe convene in Brussels to discuss the future of the web, we will be talking as much about what shouldn’t take place online as what should.

Why the tone change in recent years? Because it has become increasingly clear that, like all technology, the web is open to abuse. From enabling mass incursions of privacy, to connecting terrorists and paedophiles, to facilitating cybercrime and lending anonymity to bullies and trolls, the net has a darker side, despite being an extraordinary force for good.

Over time such activities pose a mortal threat to the open and innovative internet we cherish. We should be far-sighted enough to see that the web has a trust tipping-point: a moment when we, the users, no longer believe that our interests are sufficiently protected online, perhaps as parents, or businesses and consumers, or simply as citizens. The Rubicon is a way off yet. But it is prudent to expect that, the more people question the safety, reliability and freedom of the net, the more guarded they will become in their use of it, diminishing its capacity to drive prosperity, forge communities and empower individuals.

If we are to protect all that is good about the Internet, we must therefore contain its misuse.

Part of the answer will have to be the main players acting responsibly. It is in the interest of both governments and industry to uphold the rule of law and guarantee fundamental liberties online. For online companies in particular, this will be crucial for avoiding customer disenchantment as well as the reactionary hand of state interference if and when things go wrong.

Beyond this, rules must also be set, and this is no easy task in the digital world. Global governance structures are evolving gradually and incrementally. In the absence of a comprehensive set of internationally-agreed principles, when confronted with wrongdoing, states are naturally responding with their own laws and practices. The mix of approaches, however, means that users and firms living and operating in different countries enjoy different rights.

Free speech is a case in point. People, rightly, expect the Internet to be a raucous space, where authority is challenged and diverse views abound. At the same time people, rightly, expect it to be secure. Freedom does not mean free-for-all and, as the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, while freedom of expression extends to the right information and ideas which “offend, shock or disturb”, inciting others to hatred and violence, for example, may be a crime.

Yet a study I recently commissioned into the way in which 47 European governments deal with illegal content found that too many are failing to strike this careful balance between free speech and hate speech. Censorship is a very real problem. Some states delegate filtering websites to administrative bodies which are given too wide a margin of interpretation; others rely heavily on self-regulation and so largely leave it up to private companies; in some instances we have seen governments invoke counter-terror laws in order to take content down.

This is not good for trust. All European states should be following the same principles, as set out in international law – namely Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and the case law of the Court. We have agreed, legal standards. We should use them.

I was pleased, therefore, to see that the agreement between the European Commission, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook to combat online hate speech refers explicitly to the judgments of the Strasbourg court. As we find our way on these challenging questions, the most reassuring message governments and industry can send is that decisions over what virtual behaviour is and isn’t acceptable will be based on common laws and democratic values. To this end, the Council of Europe’s will now launch a new pan-European forum bringing together industry and national authorities to look at how we can further advance European standards in the promotion of human rights and the rule of law online.

We already have legally-binding treaties for the protection of personal data, to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation online, and to combat cybercrime, which are drawn on not only in Europe but across other parts of the world. And, where there are gaps, we are seeking to fill them. The Council of Europe will now produce European standards for the blocking and filtering of illegal content and negotiate clearer rules for criminal justice access to electronic evidence on cloud servers. We will seek to codify, for the first time, international rules and guidance relating to mass surveillance.

These standards, however, are only as strong as the will of the governments and private actors who must apply them. I urge both to recognise that they are the means by which we can move together, combatting the worst abuses of the web while helping make it a free and safe space for all Europeans. In the long-term, this will be the best way to preserve trust: the lifeblood of the Internet we love.