While Europeans were busily preparing for the festive season, Brussels quietly published a document that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone's ability to see what they want on the internet.
The plans contained in the CleanIt Project are supposed to create a clean internet without any terrorists or extremists. The new blueprint for the internet is a dangerous development.
The CleanIt Project is a European public-private partnership that fights "the illegal use of the internet by terrorists and extremists" from the perspective of counter-terrorism. Because governments, entrepreneurs and businesses cannot agree on measures to 'keep the internet clean, tidy and safe', Cleanit's proposals are an attempt to impose an agreement on cleaning up the internet. Concerned parties can simply implement the proposals on a voluntary basis. The proposals are not anchored in legislation but are a framework of general principles and best practices.
European point of view
It is difficult to find political and cultural nuances in the proposals. CleanIt contains the well-known list of 'threats to a clean and safe internet'. The threats stem from a limited European idea of reality. Internet crime, discrimination, illegal software, child porn and terrorism are all trotted out and displayed as threats that ordinary, decent folk need to be protected against in their everyday internet use.
Political threats come from every level of society: extreme-left, extreme-right, animal rights extremists, environmental extremists, racists and religious fanatics. Governments have already prohibited the dissemination of violent images, propaganda material and training handbooks for terrorist activities.
It is an uncomfortable truth; the democratisation of the internet has led to a gradual erosion of liberties. Very few people want violent images or child pornography on the net but banning such content is not a solution, it will only go underground.
The think tank behind the proposals, which is partially funded by EU money, maintains that existing national laws prohibiting illegal use of the Internet by extremists and terrorists are more than adequate to counter the threats posed by 'dangerous individuals or organisations'. However, one can debate the veracity of that statement: should the WikiLeaks cables be considered subversive and a threat to national security? Should the Ku Klux Klan be allowed to have a website? Is an instructional video uploaded by a Dutch animal rights activist a call to violence? The answers all lie in the eye of the beholder.
Western governments praised the Arab Spring - the uprisings across much of the Arab world that were driven by social media - but at the same time they demanded strict controls over the selfsame social media in order to block 'unwanted' content. The Egyptian authorities agreed wholeheartedly and simply cut all internet links during the first demonstrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The CleanIt document predicts a far from happy future; it's not easy to create a clean world wide web. Everybody has to be vigilant; not only governments and companies but also internet providers, human rights organisations, churches, social and cultural organisations... the list goes on and on.
Ordinary people can also join the vigilantes: according to CleanIt: “individual users can help by warning providers and police about internet use by terrorists and extremists.” Welcome to North Korea.
The proposals have to be viewed alongside the increasing calls for prohibiting people from using the internet anonymously. Chinese authorities in several cities already force people using Weibo - the Chinese version of twitter - to register under their own name. Google+ doesn't allow pseudonyms and Facebook is doing its level best to get rid of people using pseudonyms as well.
Terrorist or freedom fighter?
CleanIt emphasises that the proposals are not anchored in law and only serve as guidelines. But as time goes on, these sorts of guidelines can sometimes assume the authority of actual legislation.
If the European Union decides that extremist views do not belong on the internet; will then be all right for China, Indonesia and Syria to come to a similar decision? Every country will be able to ban what it decides are extremist views. Indonesia can quietly continue working on its own internal code of conduct that every internet user will be forced to adhere to.
The guidelines are not only poorly thought out, they also gnaw away at the unregulated and uncontrolled access that makes the internet such a glorious, free place that users love and want to preserve. Everyone who believes that it is possible to bend the chaotic internet into a neat and tidy, well-mannered place, falls into the same trap.
It is impossible to promote internet access as a human right, which is high on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s agenda, and at the same time try and restrict and regulate it. The best policy is no policy.