The West's Coming Internet War

Two of the Western world's biggest transnational institutions may soon fall into a complex, ideological struggle: a right to free and open Internet vs. a right to be forgotten


On matters of Internet freedom, the Western world can't even begin to make up its mind, and its two biggest transnational institutions may soon fall into a complex, ideological struggle over people's rights to digital expression. Last Friday, the United Nations declared an audacious new right to the Internet in a long report, as The Atlantic's Nicholas Jackson chronicled. In the wake of Middle Eastern revolutions of the Arab Spring, the UN states that the Internet acts as a catalyst for a variety of other human rights, for free expression and the democratic exchange of ideas. This expression can "offend, shock or disturb" as well as attack governments and high-profile figures, but people must be able to raise their voices online (PDF).

The Democracy Report Frank La Rue, the UN's special rapporteur for free expression, goes on to encourage "intermediaries in particular to disclose details regarding content removal requests and accessibility of websites." Using technology to block and filter content, La Rue contends, violates states' obligation to guarantee free expression.

The UN document appears designed to target repression abroad, but the real target of its missives could very well fall closer to home.

Sounds lovely. Yet a problem looms -- these proposed rights of free expression and open Internet run counter to trends that have been building within Europe for years. Many countries there welcome an individual's right to such "content removal requests." The continent, from Spain to France to the overarching European Union itself, has repeatedly advocated and emphasized "a right to be forgotten," a right for Internet users to eliminate references to themselves online as they choose. Individuals should, the right suggests, be able to control their digital identity and remove content that may be embarrassing, outdated or invasive. I wrote about Europe's radically different view of Internet privacy for The Atlantic in February, back when Spain's data protection agency had requested Google to remove 90 links and been denied. In its refusal, the U.S.-based search engine justified its decision by referring to society's vital need for objective Internet search.

In my earlier piece, I took a broader view, looking back decades to understand how two views of privacy could develop in this way. Scholarship pointed to America's First Amendment principles contrasted against Europe's rights of personality as well as an enshrined culture of privacy that never legally had the same protections in the United States. The two cultures had developed for years and a sharp divide emerged as the two countries developed their presences online. The European Union announced intentions to legislate the principles of a "right to be forgotten" in November of 2010 and confirmed these goals this past March. These new laws would allow Europeans to sue transnational Web giants like Facebook and Google into submission to European standards of privacy. Websites like YouTube and Google Maps ran up against the continent's courts. As the EU justice commissioner noted in her March speech: "A U.S.-based social network company that has millions of active users in Europe needs to comply with EU rules."

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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