Online images of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a revealing cropped T-shirt have been blocked in Thailand.
The Internet is as American as it gets. Not just the hardware and software, but the mind-set. Many of those who built it are libertarian types — First Amendment fans who regard uncensored access to information as an unquestionably good thing, a natural right.
The trouble is, most of the world doesn’t think that way. And their pushback against the anything-goes attitude of the American Internet gets more aggressive by the month.
It’s no surprise when China and Russia don’t want to do things the American way. But our friends in Europe are also objecting, and that will test how far major US companies such as Google and Facebook would bend their principles to protect their profits.
Facebook, Google, and other Internet services for years have removed or blocked postings on a country-by-country basis. In Germany, for example, they block Nazi-related images, which are illegal there. Just the other day, Facebook began blocking embarrassing photos of the king of Thailand in that country, where it’s illegal to mock the monarch.
In the United States and other countries, we can still gape at images of King Maha Vajiralongkorn strolling through a mall wearing one of those revealing crop-top T-shirts. But in some countries, blocking publication just to their borders is not good enough. In Austria, for example, a judge in early May ordered Facebook to delete postings that described politician Eva Glawischnig as a “traitor” and a “corrupt tramp.” Pretty tame stuff by our country’s political standards, but the Austrian judge ruled that we in the United States and elsewhere shouldn’t be able to read them, either, ordering Facebook to erase the postings from its networks around the world.
Austria is, in effect, declaring that its hate-speech laws can be enforced globally, against any online entity. So if an Internet service publishes something nasty enough to offend an Austrian, the judge’s reasoning is that Austrian law should apply — regardless of where the content was published. And if Austria can bring Facebook to heel anywhere in the world, so can any other country. It’s easy to see why Facebook is digging in for a hard fight.
The news didn’t shock Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, who foresaw this problem in a 2003 research paper. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” he said to me. Actually, it did, in France several years ago, in a still-pending case involving the European Union’s famed “right to be forgotten.”
Under this principle, any EU citizen can ask Internet search services to hide embarrassing facts about his past life, if those facts are no longer relevant. So if a Frenchman was arrested in a bar fight 30 years ago, he can demand that Google stop telling his fellow Europeans about it.
Anyway, that’s how Google thought the law would be applied. But in 2015, a French court held that the right to be forgotten applies worldwide and Google must delete that information from every one of its data centers around the world. Google is appealing.
The rationale behind the Austrian and French rulings is pretty understandable: A company in France, for example, looking for information on a potential hire can simply search the American version of Google, rather than the French edition. That renders the “right to be forgotten” mostly meaningless.
The French and Austrians hope to solve that problem by declaring their global sovereignty over entire social networks. If these rulings survive on appeal, would Facebook or Google stop doing business in these countries? Fat chance. They could cave in, but then they should probably expect a demand for a court in China to purge all references to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Meanwhile in Germany, a new law requires social networks to delete within 24 hours any postings that violate that country’s hate-speech laws. These laws ban not only Nazi-related messages but any speech that insults or maligns people based on race, national origin, or religious belief. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to $53 million per incident. No, that’s not a misprint.
Critics of the law say that to avoid massive fines, Internet companies will ban anything even vaguely controversial. It’s an ice bath for free speech.
So which will prevail: national sovereignty or Internet liberty? The side that has the courts, cops, and guns seems to be winning, for now. The human rights group Freedom House recently reported that Internet freedom is on the wane worldwide as a growing roster of countries crack down on social networks and instant-messaging apps.
What to do? I favor a Geneva Convention for Internet freedom, where countries would establish a global framework for regulating online content. As an American, I resent the notion that we even need such a treaty. But America can’t prevent Europe or Russia or China from regulating US Internet companies doing business on their turf. Our best option is to limit the reach of their regulations. It’s time to negotiate a pact that will prevent foreign laws from infecting American liberties.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.