In A Speech Any Autocrat Would Love, French President Macron Insists The Internet Must Be Regulated
from the hate(d)-speech dept
Props to French President Emmanuel Macron, who had a busy week last week, what with the observance of the World War I armistice centennial, the Paris Peace Forum, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and various other related events. All drew attendees and attention from around the world to his capital city, and all required his participation in some significant way, including through the delivery of several speeches that each surely required substantial preparation to deliver so capably. Techdirt has already covered a few minor aspects of the IGF speech: the announcement that France would embed officials with Facebook, and reference to the “Paris Call.” But in terms of the major substance of the speech, there are few compliments that can be paid.
At best it was the sort of speech that someone completely new to tech policy might have come up with. Someone who, upon finding an imperfect situation, presumes that they are the first to notice the issue. And then takes it upon themselves to heroically step in to address the problem, despite the fact that their proposed “solution” reflects an incomplete understanding of the matter.
There are a number of ways this incomplete understanding infected his speech and undermined the quality of his recommendation. There was, for instance, his erroneous declaration that the Internet today is too much about content distributors not enough about content creators. This declaration alone suggests a very poor understanding of all the myriad ways people all over the world use the Internet to create and then disseminate their expressive works themselves. In and of itself it calls into question whether his overall suggestion is capable of being adequately protective of all this expression.
Because it appears not, and not just because of this limited understanding of how the Internet is used. It also ignores the critical countervailing concerns that have long deemed his proposed “fix” to be an unacceptable one. Because the “cure” he proposed — greater regulation of the Internet — is a dangerous one that would destroy all that he purports to want to protect.
We were off to a bad start with his initial skewering of net neutrality, a topic slated to be dealt with head-on by EU regulators next year. To summarize his general view on the subject: sure, we don’t want certain ideas to be marginalized. We should defend people’s access to the Internet, he said, but not always. He interprets the term “neutrality” to mean that all ideas have to be treated equally, but, in his view, some ideas are more equal than others. And this is what so offends him: net neutrality allows those who do not share “our values” to spread their ideas too.
This appeal to “values” was a recurring reference that underpinned his speech. Thanks to the Internet, Macron said, we saw an upsurge in democracy (i.e. Tahrir Square). Now, however, he complained, the Internet is being deployed by fringe elements to work against those democratic values. As he put it, in the name of liberty we are allowing the enemies of liberty to speak, and this, Macron insisted, needs to end through the imposition of regulation on the Internet and its actors.
Of course it’s not that the values he champions are bad: liberal democracy and personal liberty are certainly worth defending. And he’s right to recognize that the Internet can be a valuable tool for advancing those values. He’s also right to observe that some use the Internet to advance contrary values. But any autocrat can make the very same argument about how regulation of expressive technology is necessary to preserve a society’s “values,” and nearly all do.
There is nothing magical about any particular set of values that makes regulation designed to enforce them better than regulation designed to suppress them. Regulation that gives someone the power to decide which values are the good ones and which are the bad is regulation that gives someone the power to suppress any values, including the ones you prefer. Indeed, that’s the very point of the very values he champions, to ensure that no one gets that power. You simply can’t create that power and expect it not to be used badly.
At some level Macron understands this problem. In the same speech he lamented the autocratic approach of “China Cyberspace” as being a poor choice for the Internet’s future, and yet that’s exactly the future he invites as he calls for the Internet to be as tightly controlled by his preferred regulators as China would want it to be by its own.
But Macron fears that the only other choice to the regulatory solution he proposes is “California Cyberspace,” where California-based companies instead are the de facto regulators of the Internet.
Again, though, Macron misapprehends the current situation, in at least two significant ways. First, part of his objection to the Internet being “regulated” by California companies is that he didn’t vote for them, and thus he fears that he has no way to ensure that they act in a way that he considers sufficient to protect the values he prefers. But installing governments, even elected EU governments, as regulators of the Internet provides no guarantee that these values will be any better protected. France itself has members of the far right making increased inroads into government, as does Germany. The democratically-elected government in Poland is busy attacking its independent judiciary for not being nationalistic enough, while Hungary’s is currently attempting to ban protest. Just the day before Macron told the world how poisonous nationalism is, and yet the regulation he prescribes would give nationalists in governments the tools to cement their alternative values.
The other significant misapprehension upon which his proposal is based is that “California Cyberspace” is a lawless zone. But not all law must say no; the laws that have allowed the Internet to thrive in California and beyond have been laws that have said yes to innovation and expression and worked to protect them from interference, including Section 230, the First Amendment, and even, to a degree, the DMCA. All of these sorts of legal structures are what enable the actual protection of all those very same liberty values Macron says he wants to foster.
But that’s not the sort of regulatory approach Macron proposes. He wants one that will say no to technology — and, importantly, the expression facilitated by this technology — when he believes technology should say no to expression. In his mind this is a modest proposal, one that simply calls for regulation by international consensus via organizations like the IGF. He said this was to help transcend the “rifts” caused by different nations’ regulatory approaches. But given that next year’s IGF has been scheduled over Thanksgiving week, thereby shutting out many of the American participants who would prefer to observe one of the most significant holidays in the American calendar with their family, as is traditional, rather than on their own, working to save the Internet a continent away, it hardly seems like international pluralism is really high on the IGF agenda.
Instead it seems that the goal is to empower his own government with the ability to decide for the world what the Internet can be used for. While his call for this regulatory crackdown may be packaged up in language touting freedom, democracy, equality, and international cooperation, it is still the cry of the censor keen for the power to refuse others’ expression.