In a world where digital policy is written by politicians who barely know how to send an email, Marietje Schaake is a breath of fresh air. Marta Cooper meets the pioneering Dutch MEP
BRUSSELS, 01/11/2012 (INDEX). She has been described as Europe’s “most wired politician” and is one of the few MEPs who really understands the internet. As the rapporteur leading on the European Parliament’s report and proposal that there should be an EU strategy on digital freedom in foreign policy, published earlier this year (and currently being amended by MEPs), Marietje Schaake is blazing a trail in pushing for technology and human rights to be mainstreamed in EU external action.
A member of the Dutch social liberal party D66, Schaake has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009, and sits on the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Board of Governors of the European Internet Foundation. She also serves as vice-chair of the Supervisory Board of Free Press Unlimited, and was last month appointed to lead a report on press and media freedom worldwide, due in early 2013.
Index met Schaake in Brussels to discuss what the European Parliament is doing — and should be doing — to defend online freedoms and how the internet can stay open in an age of multiple threats.
INDEX: What would you say are the greatest threats to digital freedom of expression in Europe today?
MARIETJE SCHAAKE: There are a number of threats. Roughly speaking, governments have a hard time acknowledging and reconciling the empowerment of individuals. The monopoly of power and information that is eroding (…) I think that’s exciting and to some extent being redistributed to individuals. Power structures that were once hierarchical are more horizontal.
This offers great opportunities, but there are governments who, especially when they feel like they’re facing a crisis, want to reclaim control; they want to ban certain functions such as instant messaging or the use of technology in certain areas, such as in the UK after the riots. But I think there’s a lack of understanding that what we do here has an impact on our credibility abroad.
For example, the European legal standard is that technologies needs to have lawful interception and capacity for police and law enforcement. In Europe in principle this is bound by strict rules. But if this technology is used in a different context where there is no rule of law, then it means the technological backdoor is permanently open. In a country such as Iran, mobile and internet communications are intercepted systematically and then used to track and trace dissidents and human rights defenders.
Another trend I see is the increased power of corporations, a lack of democratic oversight and checks and balances of the responsibilities that they take and are sometimes pushed to take in regulating the online environment.
INDEX: With this pushback from corporations, what should the role of democratic governments be to ensure that, while the internet can innovate and advance, fundamental freedoms are not encroached upon?
MS: We should make sure technology is included in human rights laws, making sure that these laws apply in different contexts. The same goes for competition laws or net neutrality laws. Technologies are developing so quickly and policy making is lagging behind; this is partially a result of democracy, the belief that there should be many voices giving input, we see consensus and these things take time. But I do think it’s important that we ensure the application of laws considers the changing environment. This is now mainly fought out in courts.
We have to make sure that we make and adapt policies to be relevant to today’s age. I would say people come first, not corporate interests or technology itself. There is a tendency to focus on the specific technology, for example, we’re still talking about whether downloading from a legal source should be legal or illegal, but world is now streaming — it’s moving on. The world has already moved on.
While technologies develop rapidly, policy making is slow. Therefore putting the rights of the people at the heart of the decisions, policy is more relevant. There is a tendency by the movie and music industry to push for outsourcing of monitoring illegal downloading by internet service providers (ISPs). This would be an undesirable move; we have a separation of powers for a reason. Without appropriate understanding of what this proposal implies, it is difficult to ensure people’s fundamental rights are protected.
INDEX: And net neutrality? What are the threats here to the openness of the internet?
MS: I think net neutrality should be guaranteed. The real risk is a race to the bottom where business models push out certain non-commercial actors, where public value of information and public value of access to it is under-estimated. That information becomes merely a commodity for businesses to make money on, and we don’t appreciate the consequences of that.
Have you heard of the filter bubble? Eli Pariser [co-founder of Avaaz] has written about the impact of search engines but also about filtering information, not only by search engines but also by social media, whereby we try the same term but get different results because search engines know your profile and that, for instance, you prefer information about conservative politics and I prefer information about sports. And that way you could say that people who are always reading right-wing news will perpetually be presented with more similar links. People are seeing more and more of what they already believe, so it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The impact of these algorithms and increased use of search engines has not been investigated very thoroughly yet.
We must also keep the public value of information in mind. If information is systematically ranked differently, and if people are drawn into their own perspectives systematically, structurally and perpetually, what does that mean? We must understand much more how business models may alter the public value of information and how technologies are designed often to optimise profits for shareholders, but are not designed to optimise human rights or democracy. I would like to go back to a place where we focused much more on ensuring fundamental democratic principles of people’s universal human rights and that we continue to test whether new environments actually ensure that sufficiently.
INDEX: How feasible is a model where human rights are protected?
MS: Well, there’s a lot of updating of rules that I do think one of the key things I’m working on is to stop digital arms being exported from the EU to countries where there are known or systematic human rights violations. [Update 01/11: it was announced on 23 October that the European Parliament has endorsed stricter European export controls of digital arms]. It is a disgrace that this is still going on, I think it undermines the EU’s credibility. Everyone in the public that I’ve talked to about this believes it’s outrageous. There is a technology gap; a lot of people are not aware that the technology they’re using for recording and making [content], these are companies whose names we don’t know, they have a consumer base, they sell to third country governments, law enforcement agencies, police. They are a different kind of company than Google or Twitter or Facebook that a lot of people feel a personal relationship to because they use their services. So I think updating export regulations is feasible.
The discussion on net neutrality is becoming more eminent. In the Netherlands we have net neutrality laws, I’m very happy about that. I think there will be a push for more protection of human rights because it will also come from the market, so it won’t only be governments that have to take their primary responsibilities vis a vis the public and corporations, but it will also be a choice for people to seek different products where they feel like their rights are better protected. I am sure there will be more of those being developed, I think we’re in a transition period where people are only beginning to understand the deep impact of technology.
INDEX: So how do we educate people about security and privacy online while ensuring their freedoms are protected?
MS: Security and freedom are an integral part of each other in the context of the rule of law. Educating people is really important so they can make better choices and are aware of the big picture. A lot of people now think that services are free, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch — there’s always a revenue to be made. So making people understand how it happens I think is important.
And again, look at context within which technology may be used but at earlier stage. I’m in favour of doing human rights impact assessment at a research and development phase so that before something is widespread and everybody is using it we can actually stop and think and see what kind of impact it might have. People have warned us for years but we see it happening now, that over-the counter commercial security IT software is used against human rights defenders in third world countries. Malware, weaknesses in common systems like Microsoft are used to take over people’s computers. It’s becoming cheaper, more readily available and more widespread, and it turns against the interests of countries they were produced from and exported from. I wish there had been more consideration of the potential impact down the line of these sorts of surveillance technologies. We should learn as we go and realise that what we sell can also be used against us. The political urgency can be increased by understanding that it’s not just happening in a foreign land, that it will have an impact closer to home.
INDEX: In the UK, we’re looking at the draft “Comms Data Bill” [which will effectively create a giant database of every UK citizen’s web and text activities]…
MS: Oh my God.
INDEX: … so how can the UK defend digital freedom while bringing into play something as restrictive or undemocratic as this?
MS: Some people also need to remind the politicians responsible that such restrictive proposals immediately hurt their credibility on the global stage. William Hague gave a huge speech about the importance of freedom and security [at the Budapest Conference on Cyberspace earlier this month]. Okay, fine, but practise what you preach! I really don’t understand whether he [Hague] realises how contradictory his own words are. So, defenders of human rights, digital freedom activists, civil rights organisations, consumer rights organisations etc can come together and start and pushing back against these kinds of excessive measures. It shows how eager governments are to retain control.
INDEX: Is this an area where the European Parliament could provide some pushback?
MS: It will certainly have to be tested against European rules to see whether it is allowed. That would be an area for internal European policies, and my focus is mostly on the rest of the world.
I hope that the UK government and those responsible for these sorts of proposals realise their credibility in the world is directly undermined. When proposals were made to ban instant messaging or to even shut down certain functions [after the UK riots], there were responses from Iran and China saying “need help?” That’s not a joke, the world is really focused on what we do, it’s not only about being credible but about impacts that can backfire.
INDEX: There’s a very strong argument that if the EU — or any Western government body — is to defend digital freedom abroad it has to get its house in order first. What would you say are the first things the EU Parliament can do to achieve that?
MS: There’s a real confusion about key elements of democracy, like separation of powers. You can’t just have private companies engaging in law enforcement tasks. There are core values like the presumption of innocence, and then there are core human rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. These are all at stake when we look at the way in which, for example, intellectual property rights are being enforced.
I would hope there are lessons that are being drawn in the EU from measures against terrorism which initially were justified on the basis of saying “no one wants the worst of the worst crimes”. The same happens here; no-one wants terrorism or child pornography or cybercrime. The question is does it justify the measures proposed and are these measures proportionate? In law this is a very important concept, proportionality. I think that a lot of the measures proposed are not proportionate. There have to be checks in a court of law instead of at a policy level. What we can do is check against existing EU regulations to see if they are in line or not, but otherwise this should be tested before court.
The internet and technologies have changed a lot, but not people’s universal human rights. We do not need many new laws, nor should we over-regulate the internet. However, human rights and competition laws should apply equally online and offline. Technologies should be integrated and mainstreamed.
But I’d also urge political leaders to be leaders and not take some kind of panicked knee-jerk reactions to things they can’t control. The consequences can be disastrous.
Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. She tweets at @martaruco