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Each country has its own safety regulations and tax codes. But should each country also set its own limits for adequate online printing?
If you have a quick answer, I would ask you to think again. We probably don’t want internet companies to rule the freedoms of billions of people, but we also may not want governments to have undisputed authority.
Some Germans may agree to a law that bans online posts that their government considers hate speech. But what about the Germans who feel closed because they have expressed such views? And what should Facebook or Google do when an increasingly authoritarian government in Turkey uses similar rules to silence its citizens, or when the Polish anti-citizen law allows politicians to smear their voters?
Regulating online printing in any single country – let alone the world – is a chaotic series of compromises with no easy solutions. Let me outline some of the issues:
The “Splinternet” is here: The Internet’s utopian idea was that it would help demolish national borders, but technology watchers have been warning for decades that it could instead build those barriers even higher. This vision, often referred to as “splinternet”, is real, said Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer who founded an organization in India to defend the rights of internet users and software developers.
She told me that there was a time, until about a decade ago, when governments didn’t fully understand the power of the internet, but then authorities began to want more control – for good and bad reasons.
“Governments are very powerful and they don’t like being displaced,” she said.
So who decides? That is the fundamental question that ex-UN official David Kaye asked me about a dispute between Twitter and India over government requests to delete online material. And I’ll say it again, there is no easy answer.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as a government ordered a company to obey a law, and it should be,” said Chinmayi Arun, a fellow at Yale Law School and founding director of the Center for Communication Governance at the Indian National Law University Delhi. “When companies are faced with the knowledge that a law is affecting human freedom, I think it’s an excuse for them to raise their hands and say, ‘We don’t have a choice.'”
Internet companies like Google and Facebook regularly push back when they believe the authorities are violating basic human rights. This is often a good and a desirable thing. Except when it isn’t. And this view is subjective.
If I were a Thai citizen who wanted the monarchy to have less power, I might be happy if Facebook defied my government. But if I supported the monarchy, I might feel upset that a foreign company doesn’t respect our laws.
Internet powers still have to make decisions: People like Mark Zuckerberg or the CEO of Microsoft say they want countries to tell them what to do about tricky online printout issues and their reasoning makes sense. These decisions are difficult! Regardless of the rules set by governments, every internet rendezvous still has to use its own judgment.
Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, told me that even if countries like Germany pass laws on online language, it’s still the responsibility of internet companies to interpret whether millions of posts are on the right side of the law . This is also true in the US, where businesses are largely required to set their own limits on acceptable online printing.
Countries and international bodies should “do more to establish clearer guidelines and processes for Internet platforms,” said Douek, “but they will never make decisions about these platforms.”
Is there a middle ground? The splinternet fear is often presented as a binary choice between a global Facebook or Google or 200 versions. However, there are ideas to establish a global basis for online printing and a process for resolving disputes.
A coalition called the Global Network Initiative has worked for years to establish a code of conduct for technology and telecommunications companies to protect online language and privacy worldwide. Groups like Article 19, which deals with promoting freedom of expression, and Facebook’s Oversight Board have also worked on resolution mechanisms for people around the world to challenge the decisions of internet companies.
If you think this is all a mess – yes it is. Talking on the internet is a relatively new thing and we are still finding out very well.
Before we go …
He may not be funny funny, but he’s definitely a funny advisor: There are umpteen consultancy firms out there helping businesses buy technology, and almost none of them can be remotely called hilarious. My colleague Dai Wakabayashi found the exception: an Amazon cloud computing billing expert who pokes fun at the company and is popular enough to pose for selfies at a tech conference. (It’s a very nerdy conference.)
Not a good look for Amazon in India: Reuters reported on internal Amazon documents describing how the company circumvented India’s online shopping regulations designed to protect smaller retailers.
Avoid the sea of knockoff masks: My colleague Brian X. Chen explains how to buy medical masks online without falling for scams. See also: The writer Zeynep Tufekci asks: “Why can’t the right masks just be mass-produced, sold and distributed?”
Please enjoy this story of a centuries-old carousel and the magical moment it was briefly brought back to life.
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