This article served as the basis for my presentation on the 9th South School of Internet Governance (#SSIG2017)
Enforcement of copyrights may be the most notably focused on the so-called digital environment, a concept that comprises the wider taxonomy of online locations and distribution methods such as websites, apps, set-top boxes and illegal sharing services.
However, if we move up in the abstraction scale, it is possible to identify some key legal themes which also arise almost invariably when other rights in general need to be enforced as a result from their online violation.
These legal conflicts can be tagged as structural, because they derive not from the type of right being enforced, but from the clash between the concept of an open, borderless and free internet and the concept of the national state, sovereign within its own borders and incumbent of the rule-of-law mandate.
I have chosen three of those themes I consider to be structural to address in this 2017 SSIG, with no intention to exhaust them. Such a task that will certainly be a collective effort in the years to come.
a. The boundaries of free speech
In its most fundamental conception, the internet is a means of communication. There are, of course, important differences setting it apart from previous communication methods, but the essence of this network of networks is no other than communication.
From this fact derives the conclusion that no violation of rights perpetrated through the internet can exist if not founded in the communication between at least two connected points, and that the prevention of an online violation or its discontinuance can be obtained through the interruption of such acts of communication. And here is precisely why the freedom of speech theme is so intrinsically present in the online enforcement debate.
The original articulation of a freedom of speech right, article XI of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, is noteworthy in this debate. It shows that, since its origins, the concept bore an idea of limitations: “The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, except to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.”
Defining more concrete limits is certainly the hardest task at hand, and doing it in an abstract manner so to regulate all possible facets of the conflict, as civil law systems tend to attempt, may prove simply impossible. It will more likely be a slow process of building majority positions from concrete cases presented to the courts.
One internet-specific version of this conflict is precisely concerned with whether the interruption of online speech that violates rights is at all possible, and, if possible, in which cases and under which criteria.
Regrettably, in Brazil, the theme has been completely polarized around the recent suspensions of the WhatsApp application, not an adequate example of the attempts to define the boundaries of free speech online.
The grounds for the suspensions of WhatsApp were article 12, III, of Brazil’s Internet Statute (Marco Civil), which determines that internet service providers that do not comply with certain data-handling obligations are subject to temporary suspension of the activities that involve data collection.
In the understanding of those judges, WhatsApp’s refusal to deliver communication data requested through court orders represented a violation of those data-handling obligations, hence giving way to this temporary suspension sanction.
Regardless of the merits (all suspensions were subsequently lifted), one can easily see that the reason for the suspension sanction had nothing to do with interrupting communications or speech that violates someone’s rights. The ultimate objective of the judges who applied such sanctions was not to cease or avoid an act of violation committed THROUGH the suspended service, but rather force this service to deliver the requested data to the authorities.
The fact that a sanction exists that causes a temporary suspension of an internet service as a response to the violation of data-handling obligations may represent a legislative reckoning that considered, on the one hand, the potential harm of the breach of such obligations, and, on the other, the potential harm of suspending speech delivered through the targeted application, determining that, in certain cases, the latter harm is preferable to the first.
However, this reckoning does not relate adequately nor does it represent the matters at hand when the grounds for a suspension is the fact that an application is, in itself, illegal.
Whereas in the WhatsApp case the unavailability of the service to the general public is a point of concern, considering the absolute legitimacy of the application’s purposes, the unavailability of an application dedicated to the commission of crimes is exactly what is desired by the implementing authority.
The latter type of case would be a good example of the task of defining boundaries to the wide freedom-of-speech guarantee online, and such cases have not yet been posed to Brazilian courts in a volume that would represent a critical mass allowing for the extraction of majority positions. A thorough legislative reckoning of the matter has not yet taken place either, so the future may hold a rich debate around this matter in our country.
The European Court of Justice addressed this matter in case C-314/12 (UPC Telekabel Wien GmbH v. Constant in Film Verleih GmbH). Question 3 from the Austrian Supreme Court asked as follows: “Is it compatible with Union law, in particular with the necessary balance between the parties’ fundamental rights, to prohibit in general terms an [internet] access provider from allowing its customers access to a certain website (thus without ordering specific measures) as long as the material available on that website is provided exclusively or predominantly without the rightholder’s consent, if the access provider can avoid incurring coercive penalties for breach of the prohibition by showing that it had nevertheless taken all reasonable measures?”
A thorough study of the case is recommended, but here is ECJ’s summary paragraph answer: “In the light of the foregoing considerations, the answer to the third question is that the fundamental rights recognised by EU law must be interpreted as not precluding a court injunction prohibiting an internet service provider from allowing its customers access to a website placing protected subject-matter online without the agreement of the rightholders when that injunction does not specify the measures which that access provider must take and when that access provider can avoid incurring coercive penalties for breach of that injunction by showing that it has taken all reasonable measures, provided that (i) the measures taken do not unnecessarily deprive internet users of the possibility of lawfully accessing the information available and (ii) that those measures have the effect of preventing unauthorised access to the protected subject-matter or, at least, of making it difficult to achieve and of seriously discouraging internet users who are using the services of the addressee of that injunction from accessing the subject-matter that has been made available to them in breach of the intellectual property right, that being a matter for the national authorities and courts to establish.”
b. The existence of a net-neutrality rule and its contours
The idea of net-neutrality is largely derived from the concept of a common or public carrier, applied to services whose rendering carries in itself a public purpose or nature. There are rules of equal treatment which apply to the rendering of such services, regardless of potential economic inefficiencies which may be caused by them.
On the digital environment, this idea has been applied exclusively to infrastructure providers, and, in simple terms, has been meant to avoid that application providers buy special treatment that would result in more robust connectivity of their applications if compared to other potentially competing ones.
Endless regulatory debates have been carried out around this subject, but, within the boundaries of our panel, which concerns enforcement, the main question to be asked is this: does the net-neutrality rule apply to illegal activity online? Or, to dress the question in legal garments, does the common carrier’s equal treatment obligation benefit those using its services for illegal purposes?
The implications of this question are seen on the whole spectrum of enforcement measures, from traffic shaping technologies to blocking or suspension injunctions.
The natural answer should certainly be that net-neutrality may not be used as a shield for crime, but establishing the means through which a neutrality standard is lifted and the cases that should give way to such measures are the current challenges to be faced.
Another aspect of this discussion is whether a neutrality rule for the internet should stay confined only to infrastructure providers. Concretely, should Facebook be able to erase news that it considers to be fake? Or should Google be able to deny monetizing a video based on its sensitivity? Again, the natural answer is yes, but how and when (should neutrality eventually be applied to application providers) are the hard questions.
Many countries in the Latin American region have assimilated this legality limit into their net-neutrality regulations, be they laws or administrative regulations. These are some examples for further discussions.
CHILE – LEY NÚM. 20.4533 26-AGO-2010 – CONSAGRA EL PRINCIPIO DE NEUTRALIDAD EN LA RED PARA LOS CONSUMIDORES Y USUARIOS DE INTERNET – 24 H.- Las concesionarias de servicio público de telecomunicaciones que presten servicio a los proveedores de acceso a Internet y también estos últimos; entendiéndose por tales, toda persona natural o jurídica que preste servicios comerciales de conectividad entre los usuarios o sus redes e Internet: a) No podrán arbitrariamente bloquear, interferir, discriminar, entorpecer ni restringir el derecho de cualquier usuario de Internet para utilizar, enviar, recibir u ofrecer cualquier contenido, aplicación o servicio legal através de Internet, así como cualquier otro tipo de actividad o uso legal realizado a través de la red. En este sentido, deberán ofrecer a cada usuario un servicio de acceso a Internet o de conectividad al proveedor de acceso a Internet, según corresponda, que no distinga arbitrariamente contenidos, aplicaciones o servicios, basados en la fuente de origen o propiedad de éstos, habida cuenta de las distintas configuraciones de la conexión a Internet según el contrato vigente con los usuarios.
COLOMBIA – RESOLUCIÓN 3502 DE 20114
COMISIÓN DE REGULACIÓN DE COMUNICACIONES – Por la cual se establecen las condiciones regulatorias relativas a la neutralidad en internet, en cumplimiento de lo establecido en el artículo 56 de la ley 1450 de 2011 – 3.1 LIBRE ELECCIÓN. El usuario podrá libremente utilizar, enviar, recibir u ofrecer cualquier contenido, aplicación o servicio a través de Internet, salvo en los casos en que por disposición legal u orden judicial estén prohibidos o su uso se encuentre restringido.
ARGENTINA – Ley 27.0785 – LEY ARGENTINA DIGITAL – Diciembre 18 de 2014 – ARTICULO 57. — Neutralidad de red. Prohibiciones. Los prestadores de Servicios de TIC no podrán: a) Bloquear, interferir, discriminar, entorpecer, degradar o restringir la utilización, envío, recepción, ofrecimiento o acceso a cualquier contenido, aplicación, servicio o protocolo salvo orden judicial o expresa solicitud del usuario.
MEXICO – LEY FEDERAL DE TELECOMUNICACIONES Y RADIODIFUSION – Capítulo VI – De la Neutralidad de las Redes – Articulo 145. Los concesionarios y autorizados que presten el servicio de acceso a Internet deberán sujetarse a los lineamientos de carácter general que al efecto expida el Instituto conforme a lo siguiente: I. Libre elección. Los usuarios de los servicios de acceso a Internet podrán acceder a cualquier contenido, aplicación o servicio ofrecido por los concesionarios o por los autorizados a comercializar, dentro del marco legal aplicable, sin limitar, degradar, restringir o discriminar el acceso a los mismos.
EQUADOR- RESOLUCION DEL CONATEL 4777 – Art. 15. Acceso a la Información, contenidos y aplicaciones – 15.6 Hacer uso de cualquier aplicacion o servicio legal disponible en la red de Internet, con lo cual el servicio que ofrezcan los prestadores de los servicios no deberán distinguir ni priorizar de modo arbitrário contenido, servicios, aplicaciones u otros, basandose en criterios de propiedad, marca, fuente de origen o preferencia. Los prestadores de los servicios pueden implementar las acciones técnicas que consideren necesarias para la adecuada administración de la red de servicios, lo cual incluye también la gestión de tráfico en el exclusivo ámbito de las actividades que le fueron concesionadas o autorizadas para efectos de garantizar el servicio.
PERU- RESOLUCION DEL CONSEJO DIRECTIVO
No 138-2014-CD/OSIPTEL – 03 de noviembre de 2014- CAPITULO IX – DERECHO DE ACCESO A APLICACIONES Y PROTOCOLOS DE INTERNET – Articulo 67-A – Acceso al uso de aplicaciones y protocolos de Internet – El abonado tiene derecho a acceder a cualquier tráfico, protocolo, servicio o aplicación soportado sobre Internet, así como a enviar o recibir cualquier información que se encuentre acorde con el ordenamiento legal vigente.
c. Applicable laws and applicable jurisdiction
Criminal law theory defines transnational crimes as those whose execution begins in one country but whose effects are entirely or partially produced in another.
Transnationality, legal or ilegal, is internet’s bread and butter. Think of a hypothetical enforcement case with a completely feasible scenario: three operators of a repository containing illegal material live in two different countries, one in Peru and two in Uruguay, and use servers located in France.
Access to this repository is gained through either a bitcoin payment or an online wallet payment operated trough a company incorporated in the U.K., and views of content are also monetized through advertisement networks incorporated both in Russia and Israel.
Undercover contact with one of the operators reveal that two e-mail services are used, one provided by a company incorporated in the U.S., the other by a company also incorporated in Russia.
We could still add many jurisdictions to this hypothetical problem, but it is already clear that enforcing one country’s law in this scenario is a very hard task and one which would certainly take more time that what is desirable.
Thinking of global harmonization of material and procedural laws is nothing but wishful thinking in the foreseeable future. Not even highly critical matters such as terrorism enjoy such a homogeneous global treatment.
One possible way, however, of envisioning the beginning of a path towards a slightly more harmonized treatment of enforceable matters online is exactly through internet-governance mechanisms.
The day-to-day operation of this network is mainly carried out by private companies that follow best practices, and one hope that is still alive, at least for me, is that one day these best practices will not be only of a technical nature, but will also have assimilated into themselves a minimum threshold of legality.
PS1: This article is academic in nature and does not necessarily represent the opinions of my employers or associates.
PS2: Due to time constraints, the last topic was not explored during the SSIG panel.