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Cybersecurity & Standards

EU Says Keeping Internet Open to Innovation is Key Policy Goal

The European Commission earlier this week released a paper identifying the following as the key challenges for the next stage of the Internet:

(1) continuing to update broadband infrastructure to improve accessibility and speeds; (2) keeping the Internet open to new business models and innovation; and (3) addressing privacy and security concerns.

This is a sound list. From CDT’s perspective, the emphasis on Internet openness is particularly welcome. The paper rightly notes the risk that “traffic management” could be used for anti-competitive purposes. The paper also observes that open standards are crucial. These are essential points in considering the debate over “Internet neutrality.” Innovation has thrived on the Internet precisely because anyone can design applications based on the medium’s common and open protocols. Any application that is built to those standard protocols will work across the whole Internet. An innovator need not seek cooperation or approval from network operators or anyone else; in short, there are no “gatekeepers.” But if individual network operators start departing from open standards and handling traffic differently based on its content, this openness could be significantly undermined.

So it is good to see the European Commission acknowledge that this is a serious policy issue, rather than a “solution in search of a problem” (as neutrality opponents have often claimed). Interestingly, the new paper does not directly address the fact that some European governments have pushed for network operators to take an active role in identifying and blocking users who engage in copyright infringement. There is substantial tension between the concept of having ISPs serve as inspectors and gatekeepers for copyright purposes and the policy goal of an open Internet with no gatekeepers. Placing certain kinds of copyright policing responsibilities on ISPs could herald a substantial change to the openness of the Internet’s architecture; however, the paper doesn’t wrestle with this potential tension. When the paper turns to the challenge of privacy, it observes that Europe has technology-neutral data protection legislation that should be fully applicable to the online environment. The task for Europe, it therefore concludes, is monitoring the implementation and application of that legislation to evolving technologies.

Of course, in the United States, the legal situation is quite different. As CDT has been pointing out for years, there is no overall U.S. legal framework governing data privacy. When a new Congress is seated next year, CDT will resume its call for baseline privacy legislation that, while not focusing solely on the Internet, could help address the Internet-related challenges the European Commission correctly perceives. In addition, it is important to note that both Europe and the United States have a long way to go in settling on an appropriately balanced privacy framework for government access to personal data. The European Commission’s paper, in listing privacy among the key future challenges, doesn’t clearly point out that there are actually two separate but related facets to the privacy question: privacy vis-a-vis commercial or private sector entities, and privacy vis-a-vis the government.