I’m closing this blog…  now on WordPress at www.wethenet.eu

Just as the U.S Congress is about to debate the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, and before the Telecom Package discussion resumes later this fall, one could regret that the concept of openness of our communications infrastructure is not more salient in the public debate.

What is about anyway? And why does it matter?

An open communications infrastructure is developed and used according to the concept of network neutrality. Net neutrality relies on the principle that network management should be free of restrictions regarding content, application and platforms, or the kind of device that may be attached to the network. It guarantees that the flow of information that runs trough the communications architecture is neither blocked nor unreasonably degraded by telecommunications operators, so that end-users can freely and efficiently make use of the network.


The result of more than 25 years of technological innovation, the wide spread of communication and computations capacities in developed countries is having deep structural consequences in our societies. As every citizen or business-oriented organization can now rely on the openness of the Internet to perform their activities, the production and the circulation of information, knowledge and culture are being democratized. The barriers to entry (now a €200 computer and a €30 monthly Internet connection, as well as users’ creativity) are sufficiently lowered for people to participate more fully into the social, economical and political life. However, for these new modes of participation to thrive, Internet users – whether citizens or businesses – have to retain a set of rights and freedom, which are partly preserved through keeping the network open.

In return, openness will make citizens freer by allowing them to engage in the production of the cultural goods that surround us, which are today mostly controlled by the handful of corporations involved in the media industries. In that respect, net neutrality can achieve a fuller conception of free speech, as the French Constitutional Council asserted in its decision on a law aimed at tackling file-sharing. Finding that the law disrespected the Declaration of the Man and of the Citizen, the Council stressed that free access to the Internet was an instrumental part of the freedom of expression and communication. By doing so, the constitutional judges implicitly recognized that an open Internet provides us with the opportunity to deepen people’s freedom and autonomy, and therefore improves democratic processes.

Also, net neutrality allows for more efficient markets, in which information is not held back by a few companies. Studies show that such new market structures facilitate innovation and competition, as economic actors take advantage of the communications network to launch new services [1]. Incumbent actors in the media and the telecom industries have an obvious interest in perpetuating their control over information and communication networks, and try to do so by, for instance, engaging in overt “wars” against file-sharing[2], or by banning innovative VOIP applications from mobile telecommunications services[3]. These actors thereby attempt to avoid competition in order to protect their dominance on these markets without having to adapt their business-models. However, it should be clear that it makes no sense for public policy to support such endeavors.

The principle of openness is undoubtedly economically viable and coheres with current infrastructure management practices. It is indeed a core element of the regulatory schemes that apply to other infrastructure commons[4], such as transportation networks or energy grids. It is clear that given what is at stake – citizen’s rights and economic -, regulators are legitimate in imposing public interest requirements like net neutrality onto telecommunications operators. The strategic role of broadband networks largely justifies that the architecture of such networks may not respond solely to the telecoms operators’ commercial logic. It is all the more obvious when one considers, for instance, the various public funds aimed at supporting broadband deployment (see for example, the subsidies granted for high speed Internet lines in rural areas included in both EU and national recovery plans[5]).

It is evident that society as a whole benefits from an open network. Of course, we need to find ways of funding the deployment of better broadband communications, which require significant investments. But the upgrade of our communication infrastructure should not be completed at the expense of a potentially enhanced citizenship in the political field, or of effective competition in the economic sphere. The derogations to the principle of net neutrality should remain as minimal as possible, and rely exclusively on unequivocal public interest objectives.

[1] A thorough overview of the way new networked technologies transform markets is offered in The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler.

[2] For an analysis of the disastrous consequences of such copyright enforcement, see Op-Ed by American legal scholar Lawrence Lessig.

[3] Such strategy is being pursued by telecom operators like Orange and O2 in Europe or AT&T in the United States. These companies have unilaterally decided to disable the use of the Skype iPhone application over their 3G networks.

[4] For an assessment of the socio-economic benefits of open-access provisions in infrastructure commons regulation, see this paper by Brett M. Frischmann.

[5] The EU recovery plan unveiled in January 2009 provides €1 billion for rural broadband.

People in the online advertising business are keen on supporting self regulation when consumers and regulators raise privacy concerns. Yet, there are laws protecting privacy, both in the European Union and the United States. The thing is: they have been designed before the advent of the internet and fail to guarantee this fundamental right in today’s world.

So it is reassuring to see that the U.S Federal Trade Commission, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is now beginning to tackle this issue in order to provide a level playing field for all citizens and businesses. As Europe is in the (painful) process of reforming the telecom sector, it would have been a good opportunity to significantly upgrade the ePrivacy directive…

American novelist Mark Helprin has a new book out called “Digital Barbarism” in which he defends – among other things – copyright extensions. This manifesto against the free culture movement seems to be a accumulation of insults and conservative claims on how culture should be produced and circulated.

For instance:

The vast bulk of this [“free culture”] army may be just a bunch of wacked-out muppets led by little professors in glasses, but they will do more damage to the underpinnings of civilization than half a million Visigoths smashing up the rotted, burning cities of Rome

Interesting (though biased) review of the book, here.

French competition regulator released an important report, saying an internet provider should (Orange in this case) not be allowed to use exclusive broadcasting rights to make some media content available only to its suscribers.

France is thus drifting away from poor regulation that would have been detrimental to both the role that the media play in the democratic process as well as technological innovation.

Competitive markets require sound regulation, as it should be clear for everybody by now.

Google executives face (ridiculously high) legal charges for failing to check user-generated content before it is made public on a website.

Check out this BBC article.

Take-down practices can and should be improved to respect people’s privacy but this is just another dumb legal argument that runs counter to the internet’s progressive potentialities.

Yesterday at 5P.M, the French Constitutional Council – in charge of checking the conformity of legislation with the Constitution – rendered a groundbreaking decision regarding the highly controversial “three strikes law” (or graduated response), passed last month by Parliament to fight illegal downloading.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The law established a penalty amounting to the suspension of downloaders’ internet connection without appropriate judicial safeguards. Yet, the Constitutional Council affirmed in very strong words that under no circumstance should people’s freedom of expression and communication be denied by a non-judiciary authority (in this case, and independent administrative agency, which does not guarantee a fair trial). According to Article 66 of the French Constitution, the judiciary authority is the “guardian of individual liberty” and as such is the only one authorized to pronounce sentences infringing on fundamental liberties, which are at stake in this law as the Council asserts.

It based its legal argument on one of the first Declaration of Human Rights in history (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, pronounced in 1789 at the beginning of the French revolution). In the decision, the ten justices stress that the Declaration’s Article 11 provides that “the free communication of thoughts and opinions is of one of man’s most precious rights”, and they declare that the internet now plays an instrumental role in guaranteeing the effectivity of that right – free speech. To be even clearer, they emphasize its importance for citizens’ “participation to the democratic life and the expression of ideas and opinions”.

A year ago, when this law was only a bill on the verge of being introduced in Parliament, I wrote that given some of the Council’s past landmark decisions, the so-called “graduated response” would be condemned as unconstitutional. I based my reasoning on a 1989 decision on a law regulating the audiovisual sector. This law basically proclaimed the media’s independence from the State, which has exerted a monopoly over TV and radio broadcast until the early 1980 in most liberal democracies, on the ground of freedom of expression. To protect the latter, the Council imposed significant limits on the sanction powers of the administrative agency in charge of regulating the media. Yesterday’s decision follows the same logic, on the ground that suspending people’s internet connection patently undermines their freedom of expression and communication, and that only a judge in accordance with due process can do so.

But this is not all. Since 1989, due to a lack of transparent regulation along with the emergence of new forms of collusion between media companies and political personnel, the traditional media landscape has failed to deliver on its promises. The Council’s decision underlines the opening of  new era, recognizing the internet’s key contribution to offering new spaces for democratic participation.

During both French and European debates, proponents of the bill abusively referred to a European Court of Justice decision that argued for some balance between the rights of copyright-holders and people’s privacy in the fight against illegal downloading (I wrote about it in a analysis for La Quadrature du Net, a digital rights organization I have worked with these past few months). Misinterpreting the Court’s ruling, the government’s allies used this decision to back up the “graduated response”, simply saying that the Court had deemed necessary to conciliaite both freedom of communication and copyright. In fact, by no mean did this case touch on freedom of expression and communication. Had the Court called upon member states to better protect copyright, the European Parliament would never have been able to massively oppose the graduated response, as it did on three occasions since April 2008.

Now, with great solemnity, France’s highest Court brings some clarity to the debate. Endorsing the European Parliament, it distinctly acknowledges that accessing the internet has become a core component of people’s fundamental rights. The Council’s decision is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent and authoritative ever rendered on digital rights and a represents a milestone for the internet’s nascent history.

I selected the most important excerpts of the decision:

Suspension of internet access

12. Considérant qu’aux termes de l’article 11 de la Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789 : ” La libre communication des pensées et des opinions est un des droits les plus précieux de l’homme : tout citoyen peut donc parler, écrire, imprimer librement, sauf à répondre de l’abus de cette liberté dans les cas déterminés par la loi ” ; qu’en l’état actuel des moyens de communication et eu égard au développement généralisé des services de communication au public en ligne ainsi qu’à l’importance prise par ces services pour la participation à la vie démocratique et l’expression des idées et des opinions, ce droit implique la liberté d’accéder à ces services [internet].
13. (…) Les conditions d’exercice du droit de propriété ont connu depuis 1789 une évolution caractérisée par une extension de son champ d’application à des domaines nouveaux ; que, parmi ces derniers, figure le droit, pour les titulaires du droit d’auteur et de droits voisins, de jouir de leurs droits de propriété intellectuelle et de les protéger dans le cadre défini par la loi et les engagements internationaux de la France.

15. (…) La liberté d’expression et de communication est d’autant plus précieuse que son exercice est une condition de la démocratie et l’une des garanties du respect des autres droits et libertés ; que les atteintes portées à l’exercice de cette liberté doivent être nécessaires, adaptées et proportionnées à l’objectif poursuivi.

16. (…) Ses pouvoirs peuvent conduire à restreindre l’exercice, par toute personne, de son droit de s’exprimer et de communiquer librement, notamment depuis son domicile ; que, dans ces conditions, eu égard à la nature de la liberté garantie par l’article 11 de la Déclaration de 1789, le législateur ne pouvait, quelles que soient les garanties encadrant le prononcé des sanctions, confier de tels pouvoirs à une autorité administrative dans le but de protéger les droits des titulaires du droit d’auteur et de droits voisins.

Respect of privacy

26.Considérant que les dispositions combinées de l’article L. 34-1 du code des postes et des communications électroniques, tel qu’il est modifié par l’article 14 de la loi déférée, des troisième et cinquième alinéas de l’article L. 331-21 du code de la propriété intellectuelle et de son article L. 331-24 ont pour effet de modifier les finalités en vue desquelles ces personnes peuvent mettre en oeuvre des traitements portant sur des données relatives à des infractions ; qu’elles permettent en effet que, désormais, les données ainsi recueillies acquièrent un caractère nominatif également dans le cadre de la procédure conduite devant la commission de protection des droits.

27. Considérant que la lutte contre les pratiques de contrefaçon sur internet répond à l’objectif de sauvegarde de la propriété intellectuelle et de la création culturelle ; que, toutefois, l’autorisation donnée à des personnes privées de collecter les données permettant indirectement d’identifier les titulaires de l’accès à des services de communication au public en ligne conduit à la mise en oeuvre, par ces personnes privées, d’un traitement de données à caractère personnel relatives à des infractions ; qu’une telle autorisation ne saurait, sans porter une atteinte disproportionnée au droit au respect de la vie privée, avoir d’autres finalités que de permettre aux titulaires du droit d’auteur et de droits voisins d’exercer les recours juridictionnels dont dispose toute personne physique ou morale s’agissant des infractions dont elle a été victime.

28. Considérant qu’à la suite de la censure résultant des considérants 19 et 20, la commission de protection des droits ne peut prononcer les sanctions prévues par la loi déférée ; que seul un rôle préalable à une procédure judiciaire lui est confié ; que son intervention est justifiée par l’ampleur des contrefaçons commises au moyen d’internet et l’utilité, dans l’intérêt d’une bonne administration de la justice, de limiter le nombre d’infractions dont l’autorité judiciaire sera saisie ; qu’il en résulte que les traitements de données à caractère personnel mis en oeuvre par les sociétés et organismes précités ainsi que la transmission de ces données à la commission de protection des droits pour l’exercice de ses missions s’inscrivent dans un processus de saisine des juridictions compétentes.


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