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What is really going on in Europe?

The proposed EU regulation of blogs and other forms of Internet speech being suggested by the Council of Europe (a quasi-governmental think-tank whose views have inordinate sway with the EU’s policy making elite) is very revealing about what lies at the heart of The Great European Project.

Steven Den Beste has written a rather good article on why the press is treated differently than broadcast media which use the finite resource of the electromagnetic spectrum. One can argue that as the EM spectrum is finite, it is reasonable to share out its use and as clearly not everyone can set up a radio or TV station, some rules to prevent the use of the media from becoming over mighty are justified. This is not quite how I see that issue myself but the contention is far from absurd.

One can even make the far less supportable assertion that because in reality setting up a newspaper is far beyond the means of most people simply because it is so expensive, the state should regulate the press, at least to some extent. Not surprisingly I flatly reject this notion and think the only defence individuals need against the established press are laws against libel. However the thinking behind this sort of regulation is at least easy to understand and can, if you accept the state as an essentially benevolent neutral institution (which I certainly do not), be seen as a way to prevent abuses of power by an over-mighty media corporation given the vast asymmetry of access to public opinion between a newspaper and an individual.

But when the Council of Europe start urging the EU to regulate blogs like this one, it should be clear that none of the arguments which can be applied to broadcast media and or the press apply here. As I mentioned in my previous article on this issue, if you have a cheap computer and a crummy modem, it still only takes about five minutes and no money whatsoever beyond your dial-up or broadband connection charges to set up a blog. There is no asymmetry of access to the public involved here. Granted, setting up an effective blog is another issue entirely, but simply getting viewable grievances in front of blogosphere eyeballs is simplicity itself.

So if anyone can set up a blog, and there is no finite resource in need of being allocated ‘fairly’ and there are no de facto capital related barriers to ‘market’ entry, what are we to make of this Council of Europe proposal to regulate us? If I had to pick a single word to describe the root of this move to intermediate the state between on-line free speech and on-line readers, it would be Communitarianism. The notion at work here is much the same as that which I discussed when I rebutted Peter Hain’s ideas for a totally political ‘society’. If I write something and plonk it on the Internet, I cannot compel someone else to read it just as they could not have compelled me to write it in the first place. Yet the notion of a freely offered opinion via an almost universally available medium and a freely choosing reader assumes that individual choice (mine as writer and yours as reader), rather than some collective political will, is an acceptable basis for social interaction.

What the people at The Council of Europe find so offensive is that this simple process (I decide to write, you decide to read (or not)) is totally non-political. If you read my article and decide to leave a comment, and I decide to delete that comment, and you then decide to start your own blog to decry the things I write, where is the ‘political community’ in all this? Nowhere of course, because the actions described are purely social. There is no use of the collective means of coercion by either me nor the disgruntled reader. You do not get a vote on what I write and I do not get a vote on what you read… and if you start up a blog of your own to criticise me, I do not get a vote on what you write either and if I leave comments on your blog pointing out the errors of you ways, you can delete them if you choose to.

The understanding that civil society (the several actions of affinity and dis-affinity) and the political sphere (the control the collective means of coercion) are materially different is hardly a new observation. Yet it is the refusal to accept this by people who see force (politics) as the only legitimate means of interaction which lies at the heart of attempts to legally impose certain forms on how people express views on the Internet. It is not about enabling wrongs to be righted, or giving voice to the voiceless, or sharing the means of expression. As blogs are more or less free to set up and the Internet has essentially infinite in capacity to support them, that argument is simply a bare faced lie. This proposed regulation is just a particularly overt example of how the power elite in Europe will not tolerate anything which disintermediates the state because to deny any role for politics in something is to deny them any role. After all, they are not threatening to ban us (provided we comply with their directives), they are just demending we stop acting as social entities, following the customs and manners of the Internet, and start acting as political entities, comporting ourselves according to the politically formats laid out by the superstate’s expresion of what they see as the collective will.

This is because if there is one thing communitarians hates above all, it is being ignored and excluded. A communitarian thinks not only is my business everyone’s business, but the plurality has the right to use political interaction (which means force backed law) to vote on my every action… there is no real ‘private life’ to a communitarian, just a political one. In a quite literal sense, popularity is mandatory: you may only do what a plurality allows you to do.

In a perverse way, this policy proposal by the Council of Europe is almost good news: if they want to go to the effort to regulate us, that means they think we humble bloggers Humble?  That's a good one! actually matter in the overall scheme of things. Our voices are being heard and the powers-that-be do not much care for the discordant non-state approved tune we are singing. Splendid.

Resistance is not futile. We will not be harmonised.

19 comments to What is really going on in Europe?

  • In the American context, the argument summarised by SDB is essentially that “Radio spectrum is finite, therefore we will licence as many radio stations and television stations as we reasonably can”, but even after we have done this there are not enough for everyone to have one, and therefore we need to regulate. This does actually describe what happened. (American regulators also didn’t prevent people from building cable networks, which ultimately allowed even more channels).

    However, in Europe and the UK (and also Australia) this isn’t how things evolved. The number of licenced television and radio stations was much less than was possible in the spectrum available. That is, governments decided that this new medium needed to be regulated, and they kept the amount of it relatively small so that it could be more easily regulated. In Britain we got the BBC, and when private sector competitors came into being, their ownership structure (and their content) were regulated in overly complex ways in order to limit the extent to which they could compete with the BBC. It was not legally possible to build cable networks in Britain until much later than they were built in the US, and when satellite television became possible it was also initially restricted. (Remember, at one point Rupert Murdoch’s British satellite operation was operating using a satellite licences from Luxembourg).

    Although it was often stated, the “Because spectrum is scarce, we must regulate television to keep it balanced” argument never really logically described the situation in the UK, because the extreme scarcity of spectrum for television stations in the UK was actually created by the regulation, not the other way round. The regulation was, quite simply, the government trying to control a new and potentially powerful medium. There was little more to it than that, and as far as I am concerned this is somewhere where government has no business being.

  • Andy Wood

    Without restrictions on strong encryption (which would surely be resisted by the internet banking industry) and anonymous remailers etc., I cannot see how the proposed regulations would be enforceable.

    I predict that if the proposed regulations become anything more than a nuisance, then we will see the emergence of an off-shore anonymous blog-hosting industry.

  • It sounds like the eurocrats are rattled, and have finally picked a fight they will unambiguously lose.

    Short of the Communist Chinese approach to taking the Inter out of Internet (and even that leaks), this sounds like an opportunity for the eurocracy to, by its own choice, get the tonking it has so long deserved.

    Internet websites have much of the advantages the European institutions have so long enjoyed and abused, semi-anonymity, difficulties in hitting back at a large and amorphous labyrinth of offices, something approaching omnipresence (and yet without a single seat of accountability), repeated confusing changes of name and structure…. All the things that people who dislike the Internet and weblogs dislike, have characterised the “European institutions” since the spores began to hatch out of the Franco-German Coal and Steel Agreement in the 50s.

  • Dave O'Neill

    Ummm… reading on the subject and looking at the facts, I have to ask; what proposed EU regulation of Blogs?

  • You did not read through the links very carefully.

    As it stands, they are not decided if ‘non-professional on-line media’ need to be regulated but that is indeed how the draft stands at the moment. Non-professional on-line media… that means us.

    They make it clear that the criteria for regulation is not, however, that the ownership of the media is professional or non-professional but whether or not it is influential:

    …it may not be necessary to extend the right of reply to non-professional on-line media whose influence on public opinion is limited;

    Samizdata.net is by no means in the truly big league in terms of hit rate compared to Instapundit or Andrew Sullivan and yet even we get more readers per week than a significant proportion of British regional newspapers, I see little chance of escaping attempts to regulate us (though the way to thwart enforement of those regulations is really quite straightforward).

  • Scott Cattanach

    Reason Hit and Run linked to this upchuck from the ever lovable Bill O’Reilly:

    …So all over the country, we have people posting the most vile stuff imaginable, hiding behind high tech capabilities. Sometimes the violators are punished, but most are not. We have now have teenagers ruining the reputations of their peers in schools on the Internet. Ideologues accusing public officials of the worst things imaginable. And creeps gossiping about celebrities in the crudest of ways.

    The Internet has become a sewer of slander and libel, an unpatrolled polluted waterway, where just about anything goes. For example, the guy who raped and murdered a 10-year old in Massachusetts says he got the idea from the NAMBLA Web site that he accessed from the Boston public library. The ACLU’s defending NAMBLA in that civil lawsuit.

    Talking Points noted with interest the hue and cry that went up from some quarters about the FCC changing the rules and allowing big corporations to own even more media properties. But big corporations are big targets. If they misbehave, they can be sued for big bucks. These small time hit and run operators on the net, however, can traffic in perversity and falsehoods all day long with impunity. It’s almost impossible to rein them in.

    So which is the bigger threat to America? The big companies or the criminals at the computer? Interesting question. …

  • Dave

    Perry,

    Harry Steele’s rebuttal covers this stuff in quite a lot of detail.

  • With all due respect to Harry, that is not a ”rebuttal” at all. Are you (and Harry) suggesting that “non-professional on-line media” does not include blogs? Please explain.

    Likewise, I and hopefully everyone else is aware this is just a draft document by a quasi-governmental think-tank and not by a legislative body. But so what? The whole point of screaming blue murder is to make sure it does not get any further! Sadly, the Council of Europe is not an insignificent body. I wish it was.

  • Kevin L. Connors

    Perry, your writings keep drumming the theme of the difference between civil society and political society. Keep it up, as, in my travels, I have observed this concept to be highly misunderstood.

    Argh! I hate that differentiation between “professional” and “non-professional”. Andrew Sullivan relies upon income from his blog to survive, Glenn Reynolds doesn’t. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure Glenn makes a bit more in donations than it costs him to run his site, but Eugene Volokh doesn’t even have a donation link. So, clearly then, Eugene is not a “professional” blogger and Andrew is right? But what is Glenn? And, more importantly, what difference should that make to the content of their blogs? It is rediculous.

  • dave fordwych

    Perry obviously understands the way “Europe” has been insidiously promoted in Britain in the past 30 years.It’s usually in 3 stages.

    1:There’s nothing to worry about ,it will never happen……………..Then,

    2:Nothing important is going to change,we’ve blocked the worst bits of it anyway………..Finally,

    3: Well, everybody knew that was going to happen so what are you complaining about.

  • Atlantic

    Don’t forget that with so many public libraries offering free internet access, the cost of setting up a blog can be totally nil.

  • sage mclaughlin

    I don’t accept the legitimacy of regulating limited radio spectrum and so on for the same reason I wouldn’t accept such regulation of beachfront property. The latter is expensive precisely because there is not enough to go around, and relatively few people will necessarily own any of it.

    There again, the regulations on what uses you can get out of your beach are pretty heavy too, so never mind.

  • Interesting parallels between what you say hear and what I wrote in this post:

    http://www.porphyrogenitus.net/archives/week_2003_03_09.html#001091

    IMO, it’s hard to “rebut” the assertion that the theorists and draftsmen of the EU wish to regulate speech – including (perhaps especially) over the internet (after all, their have already been a number of things on that path, and sites that are found objectionable, “non-professional” or not, get blocked out. There was, indeed, a bit of a row with the U.S. over that, already, some time ago, when the U.S. refused to go along with helping enforce such policies. That troublesome First Amendment, you know).

    When those who are the enthusiastic “opinion leaders” of EU development and integration make it very clear where their position is (things that don’t comport with the proper “European Spirit” just won’t do and have no place in the Brave New Europe; I don’t think we have to wonder too much just how even-handedly – or not – such a regulation would be enforced, if it came to pass), it’s hard to say that those like Perry who point out that yes, this is their ambition (but who don’t accept the “reasonable-sounding” premises upon which the regulatory edifice is built) are inventing the problem.

  • Joanne Shelfoon

    It goes without saying that the Internet is like no other medium in the history of humanity. For the first time in history, ordinary people the world over can have a say on any issue that strikes their fancy. The ‘control’ organizations – big money, political parties, governments/shadow governments, tv/radio/news media, etc., etc. – are being affected and forced to respond to the people. They can no longer operate with impunity.

    No wonder there is a move by the Council of EU to regulate the internet. The billions of posters with almost instantaneous and simultaneous opinions on almost any subject are cornering these groups and forcing them to realize that while Big Brother is watching us, We The People are watching back!

    The Internet is no place for facist control.

  • You have the EU wantiong to regulate blogs and in Hong Kong I have article 23 which I am sure will see me executed for giving away state secrets within a month of becoming law. ‘sfun innit!

  • Dave Farrell

    How on earth would they police it? I can’t even get an insane spammer with a yahoo address prevented from sending me an avalanche of identical e-mails daily (not for the first time). When I tried to e-mail the spam address with revenge spam, I was informed this was not a valid Yahoo address. I complained to Yahoo, not even a bloody reply despite their alleged policy of stopping this kind of thing.

    Yet somehow Eurocrats are going to have hordes of creeps monitoring the blogosphere, a completely amorphous and rapidly multiplying sector, and making sure individual blogs observe fair play or else. I don’t think so.

    Ignore the sods.

  • Kip

    Actually, it’s pretty clear how this piece of trash would be enforced. Think about it, by definition, it’s self-enforcing, since the people who would be filing grievances are the trolls who feel that they’ve been treated unfairly at someone’s web site. Only instead of writing a letter to the editor, they get to right a letter to the EUnuch commision on Internet Fairness, and the website gets a cease and desist, etc…
    In other words, pretty much exactly the way informants worked in the Soviet Bloc, not through some nebulous enforcement bureau, but by making the system self-fulfilling through jealousy. Smart, but deadly.

  • Well, Perry, it is an excellent critique, but I would take issue with the notion that the act of blogging is non-political. It is a form of self-rulership, which is -exactly- why the CE bureaubots are after it.
    You might want to check out the following from Billy Beck:

    “…’The Political Is Personal’. For many years, now, it’s always been crucial to me to take the old New Lefty saw (first scratched-up by the 60′s feminists) and put it the other way ’round, just like Laurel did. That’s because it emphasizes the fact that the things that those people fool around with in their dizzy “experiments” and what-not always involve singular, individual, human lives. That’s something that, for all their professed “caring” & all the rest of it, they actually do not — and cannot — see. They always begin with herds, without which they simply do not conceive human life.”

  • Very interesting post