Konstantinos Komaitis is a veteran of developing and analyzing Internet policy to ensure an open and global Internet. He’s currently with the New York Times’ Data Governance team. This article represents the views of the author.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron took the stage during the annual Internet Governance Forum in Paris and proclaimed: “I believe we need to move away from the false possibilities we are currently offered, whereby only two [Internet] models would exist: that, on the one hand, of complete self-management, without governance, and that of a compartmented Internet, entirely monitored by strong and authoritarian states.” At the time, he had only been in power for over a year.
Upon reflection, Macron’s speech was the opening curtain for Europe’s approach to Internet regulation, and by pointing his finger at both the United States and China, he made it clear that neither model was fit for the contract he had made with the French people. “We, therefore, need, through regulation, to build this new path where governments, along with Internet players, civil societies and all actors are able to regulate properly,” he declared.
Fast forward four years and Europe has kept its promise – at least in part.
A wave of regulatory initiatives since has created a seismic shift in the way Europe thinks about the Internet, creating the conditions for Brussels to become the center of regulatory innovation, leaving the United States and other allies behind — not a small feat for a continent that has little to show in terms of innovation. However, though the driver behind this regulatory action isn’t wrong, the premise itself is, as it overlooks the core values of the Internet itself.
In its short history of Internet regulation, Europe has been working hard to achieve a much-desired independence from U.S. commercial interests and to impose its own rule-based agenda internationally. It has become the leading force not just for demonstrating the need for a rules-based Internet but also for delivering regulatory proposals on issues as complicated as privacy, data governance, content regulation, competition, cybersecurity and AI, among many others.
The main driver behind this obsession with regulation emanates from an apparent market failure. There is no question that the market has not managed to tame the power of some technology companies, which have become too big. There is also no question that this has shifted the promise of the Internet away from an open space of equal opportunity for everyone to one where “closed systems,” controlled by a few, impose requirements for innovation and growth.
However, the market can’t fix things unless the state — as a legitimate force — intervenes to change this dynamic. And under the right conditions, Europe would perhaps be the most qualified candidate to experiment with how to achieve this.
Just take a look at its history. Regulation has acted as a form of quality control for Europe’s entire existence and success. It was regulation that created the European Union with the Treaty of Rome; it was the Treaty of Lisbon that made the bloc more democratic, more efficient and better able to address global problems with one voice. Since its creation, the EU has adopted over 10,000 legislative acts, spanning across a wide spectrum of issues and industries.
There was no reason, therefore, to believe it would treat the Internet any different. When Macron said, “I believe regulation is needed” as a “condition for the success of a free, open and safe Internet,” he really meant it.
There’s a fundamental problem, however. Europe is interested in an Internet based on its own values, with its entire regulatory agenda premised on pluralism and inclusion — both of which promote “strategic sovereignty.” And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with European values, such as respect for human rights, strong privacy protections, ideas of liberty and egalitarianism. Who wouldn’t want an Internet environment that respects them?
But by subscribing its own values onto the Internet, Europe is making the same mistake China does: It’s attempting to circumscribe the Internet within its own political, social and cultural confines. The only difference is that in Europe’s case, those confines happen to be democratic — at least, for the time being.
Even if its values are Europe’s biggest asset, they still neglect the Internet’s own values. For one, the Internet is global, yet Europe very much insists on a notion of digital sovereignty that foresees building its own DNS infrastructure with built-in filtering capabilities. The Internet is also a general-purpose network, in the sense that it’s not limited to any specific technology or interest group. Yet, Europe is considering legislation that will oblige Over The Top (OTT) service providers to pay telecoms providers for their infrastructure investment.
The Internet is also accessible, meaning anyone is able to connect to it, build on it or study it. Europe, however, has already drafted regulation that obliges platforms to use upload filters, compromising the Internet’s value in serving a diverse and constantly evolving community of users and applications. Moreover, the Internet is based on interoperable building blocks with open standards for the technologies that run on it. In contrast, the European Commission recently dropped its regulatory proposal for the sexual exploitation of children, which will force companies to come up with technologies to scan for such material instead. These technologies will be “closed,” they will undermine encryption, and they will affect the way security building blocks will end up interoperating.
Finally, the Internet is the by-product of collaboration among a diverse set of people, representing different interests. Europe’s regulation, so far, is mainly driven by a range of powerful actors — the copyright lobby, big tech or traditional telecommunication providers — and civil society continues to struggle to be heard.
Despite claiming some noteworthy wins and its promising signs of experimentation with regulation, Europe’s regulatory agenda as a whole is a prime example that it has failed to live up to this promise of collaboration with the wider Internet community. Ironically, its regulatory vision now fails to reflect both the values of the Internet and Europe, allowing the Continent to fall into the “China trap” — focusing on regulation aimed at repositioning the way power is distributed within the Internet ecosystem.
The ultimate goal is now to seize control over that power.
Experimentation means mistakes and, thus, continuous evaluation and adaptation. And as democracies around the world continue to get messier, Europe’s missing a major opportunity to promote an Internet that offers the best of both worlds — one where regulation can exist without compromising its original vision and values.