In Europe the internet is free — except when it’s not

Should the web be censored to protect individual privacy? What about to protect society at large? In America the answer is usually very simple: free speech trumps all. But the situation in Europe is far more complex, as two examples in the news right now show.
David Cameron by World Economic ForumOn Tuesday a British parliamentary committee published its report into whether the nation’s privacy laws are fit and proper.
The joint House of Commons and Lords science and technology committee — a ragtag group that mixed titled engineers and researchers with a handful of career politicians looking to score political points — made a number of recommendations about the law and regulation relating to privacy, spinning off a series of recent cases including the case of fidelity-challenged sports star Ryan Giggs.
But the group saved its real zingers for a response to testimony from Google (s:GOOG), Facebook and Twitter executives, who had argued that censorship of the vast information flow they dealt with was almost impossible.
That line, said the report, was “totally unconvincing,” and suggested that the law could be used to compel internet platforms to build filtering and censoring tools. As the Guardian reports:

The report’s most pointed language is reserved for internet companies – such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – which the committee said had presented numerous challenges to the rule of law in the UK.
“Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology,” the committee said. “We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so it should be introduced.”

Meanwhile just across the water in France, President Sarkozy has his own beef with the web.
In the wake of the horrific shooting by an al-Qaeda inspired gunman, the French leader wants to outlaw viewing of “hate sites” — suggesting that anyone who “habitually consults websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hatred and violence will be criminally punished.” It’s a policy which may help gain popular votes ahead of an election this year — but has potential long-term implications. Here’s Ars Technica:

“Don’t tell me it’s not possible,” Sarkozy said. “What is possible for pedophiles should be possible for trainee terrorists and their supporters, too.”
Sarkozy was referencing French laws that criminalize access to Internet sites with child pornography, which carry penalties of up to two years imprisonment and €30.000 in fines for “habitual” visitors. Associated Press’ Raphael Satter reports that the French Ministry of Justice would not offer additional clarification of Sarkozy’s proposal, or indicate whether the same sorts of penalties were being considered for visitors to sites covered by the proposed measure.

This is one of the big cultural differences between European and American approaches to the way the web works.
One can imagine civil liberties campaigners, internet companies and lobbying hard to prevent interference with people’s right to free expression (just look what happened with SOPA). In nations like the U.K., however, where snooping has — largely unchallenged — become a way of life, the public mood seems much more ambivalent.
Nicolas Sarkozy at the World Economic ForumAnd remember too that these incidents are not happening in isolation: Britain’s legal relationship with Twitter has been complicated for some time. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has long been running a campaign to “civilize” the internet.
This transatlantic tension goes way back. France had a long-running court case against Yahoo over the sale of Nazi memorabilia — something banned in several European countries, where the memories of war and invasion are more than just fodder for movie scripts.
But this cultural clash is complicated even further by the fact that Europe is, effectively, operating a double standard. While lawmakers are asking Google to filter and censor the data it collects, they are simultaneously questioning its retention and use of data.
That means legislators are effectively saying that the same technologies they decry for invading individual privacy can be used to protect individual privacy. The only real difference is that it’s governments, not corporates, that get to use the data.
Overcoming this increasing gap is going to be a struggle. How can it be otherwise when Europe seems to believe several contradictory ideas at the same time?