Internet Governance 6 November 2012

Are ISP's the new digital content police?

By Samuel MorganGuest Author

ISPs (Internet Service Providers), are essentially companies that provide access to the internet (Wikipeadia).  They are most times private organizations of a commercial nature. Nowadays it is hard to use the internet without taking note of, or feeling the presence of an ISP so most people are familiar with them since, for most people with internet connectivity, we tend to have some sort of contractual relationship with ISPs (we register with them, we get billed from them etc).

Since ISPs provide access to the internet, and against the background of  a need to enforce intellectual property rights, along with issues of national security, and other legal and political issues, there is increasingly a demand to ask ISPs to remove offensive or infringing content, or block these content from end users.

The question therefore : Are ISPs becoming the new digital content police?

Yesterday, IGF2012 Day 0 – I attended an interesting “Pre-Event”, which to me seemed like an event in its own right, called The Privatisation of Censorship: the online responsibility to protect free expression . These discussions provoked some very interesting questions and comments, some of which includes the following: 

1. Under what circumstances are ISPs justified in removing content? Police in many legal systems have powers to arrest upon reasonable suspicion, this vigilante behaviour might sound unjustifiable when applied to online censorship, but with increasing pressure put on ISPs to be responsible for its content (often times with constructive notice – i.e. they are deemed to know about the content once it exists), should ISPs be justified in removing content once it is “reasonably suspicious”. Its unlikely that this would be the preffered approach, yet this behaviour may already exist.

2. Under what authority should ISPs be required to remove content? Some argue that a court order would be the minimum standard, particularly as this is the standard required for censorship in the real world.

3. For what kind of content should ISPs be given carte blanche authority  (i.e full discretionary power)?

4. Should the Telecom laws of privacy apply to privacy of information? Many take the view that the Telecom model of governing the internet is not a suitable one. 

5. How do we hold ISPs accountable for an abuse of power? Police are monitored internally and have an external accountability which ultimately leads to the electorate. ISPs however are private corporations, how do current corporate laws allow horizontal enforcement of the human rights of freedom of expression and others when they are wrongfully infringed upon by ISPs? In some areas of the world, there may be recourse for wrongful police actions in International Tribunals based on Convention articles.

5. Should there be trade regulations for surveillance technologies used by ISPs, Governments et al? The EU has passed a new regulation limiting surveillance technologies.

6. Who will pay for censorship? Should Governments be required to pay the increasing surveillance and censorship costs?

7. Should there be a global minimum standard where digital censorship is concerned?

Of course, these are tough questions which are not easily answered, what is certain however, is that the current model may not be the ideal one.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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