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Marietje Schaake Headshot

Stop Balkanizing the Internet

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The government of Ethiopia has announced a ban on the use of a wide range of Internet communication services. According to reports, the draft Telecom Law criminalizes the use of Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Violators face a high financial penalty or a 15 year prison sentence. In practice, the law would also mean that all Internet traffic of 85 million Ethiopians will be monitored. End of story for unrestricted Internet access, freedom of expression and access to information online. The subsequent international outcry has forced the government to clarify its intentions and signalled a possible backtracking of the initial plans. Proposals like these show that authoritarian regimes are wary of losing their grip on power due to the Internet. They desperately seek to regain it by imposing new rules and regulations.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia is just one of many joining the growing list of countries that target unrestricted access to the Internet and information online through legislation. China, Iran and Cuba are notorious for building electronic walls that cut off Internet users. These de facto 'intranets' are governed by strict terms of use that regulate access to information and monitor all Internet traffic. The balkanization of the Internet is looming.

This game of virtual land grabbing no longer consists of mere incidents and the practice threatens to become institutionalized. Especially non-democratic countries are using international forums to stealthily draw up regulations that would increase their control over the governance and content of the Internet.

Because of a lack of a clear governance structure, access to the Internet has so far been relatively open and unrestricted. Organically, a governing system has developed in which businesses, organizations, governments and users all play their part. This so-called "multi-stakeholder model" has room at the table for all stakeholders. But, increasingly, multilateral organizations become important arenas, as well. At the UN level there's the "Internet Governance Forum," which co-exists with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which was established in 1865. It is in these forums that governments and businesses are waging an ongoing battle to regain influence and power online.

In the ITU, for example, authoritarian regimes are gaining ground by 'buying' the votes of developing countries. Draft regulations and proposals that aim for centralized control to fight cybercrime or to regulate information services are submitted and discussed. These measures would seriously hamper the online freedom of Internet users. It is key that Europe is strategizing around the next ITU meeting to preserve an open Internet with unrestricted access guaranteed.

Another regulatory proposal, introduced by the European Telecom sector, aims to let providers of Internet services, like Google or Spotify, pay for each connection that is established with end users. Search engines or digital music services would be required to pay fees to providers of a data network or data capacity for realizing an Internet connection. These extra revenues are supposed to be invested in infrastructures and network maintenance. Yet introducing these kinds of models does more than only creating a new layer of revenue between the end-user and the provider. Net neutrality risks to be compromised if online service providers are forced to pay for end-user access. Startups could end up paying huge amounts of money when their service suddenly becomes a success. Internet access will be unaffordable for Internet users in developing countries, or simply fewer people would want to connect anymore. As ITU regulations are in principle binding and are adopted by majority voting, these votes are certainly not without consequences. The invaluable importance of the economic and social benefits the digital revolution has brought to our societies has only been possible because of the lack of an Internet bureaucracy and a regulatory framework. Even the Internet itself, as an invention, has not been patented. Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's creators, recently said he could only have dreamt of the flourishing and innovative powers of the Internet. That vision is best preserved by keeping the Internet open and by protecting its users.

So, do we need a global Internet legal framework that protects the open and unrestricted Internet, with The Hague as the seat of the Internet Court of Virtual Justice? I don't think so, although human rights also need protection online and competition laws should be enforced on the Internet and in the digital economy. Internet governance presents quite a challenge as the Internet simply does not care about traditional borders.

Yet, Internet governance through a UN-body is not the solution. Authoritarian regimes can put their mark on the Internet at the expense of citizens who enjoy access to the Internet and information online where they can freely assemble and express themselves. The current multi-stakeholder model is the most flexible governance model to balance interests and settle disputes. We have to invest in improving this model and prevent the domination by a few. Policymakers should use their democratic obligations to prevent backroom deals.

Encouragingly, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the concept of human rights protection online and urged countries to take appropriate measures. We should be wary, nonetheless, that this declaration does not end up as just being lip-service, as some co-sponsors of the initiative do not necessarily practice what they preach.

The EU has an important task of preventing the Balkanization of the Internet and should strategize to coordinate joint actions with EU member states. Besides that, the EU should lead in promoting and defending people's digital freedoms, in Europe and abroad.