Controlling the net: European approaches to content and access regulation

Louise Cooke
2007 Journal of information science  
Organizations, national governments and supranational bodies have all been active in formulating measures to regulate access to internet content. This paper reports the findings of a documentary analysis of such measures adopted over a 10-year period by the European Union. The investigation took place from a perspective of concern for the potential impact of such initiatives on freedom of expression and freedom of enquiry. On a theoretical level, the study adopted Lessig's models of direct and
more » ... ndirect regulation as an analytical framework. The Habermasian concept of the erosion of the Public Sphere was used as an analogy for the issues posed by the regulation of speech on the internet. It is argued that the findings of the study suggest that the democratizing potential of the internet is indeed being constrained by measures imposed in an attempt to control the perceived dangers posed by the medium. Habermasian concept of the erosion of the public sphere as an analogy to any identified detrimental impact. From a methodological and theoretical viewpoint, the study aimed to evaluate the usefulness of the regulatory models proposed by Lessig [6] as a heuristic device to explore complex areas of information policy formulation. A note on scope and methodology The policy monitoring was conducted through documentary analysis of both hard copy and electronic primary and secondary sources. This included retrospective analysis from 1996 onwards through to the end of 2005, thus providing a longitudinal insight into shifts in policy emphases over this period. Although there was much pertinent legislative activity taking place in this arena in the US during the same period, analysis of this activity warrants study in its own right and here only brief reference is made to such developments as have impacted on European contexts. Similarly, although there are many other aspects of information policy that impact on the freedom of an individual to access information on the internet (such as data protection, copyright and privacy) as well as other potential barriers to use such as lack of network infrastructure or access to computer facilities, the monitoring concentrated on policy that specifically aimed to regulate access to illegal, offensive or harmful internet content. The analysis relied on data derived from primary and secondary documentary sources. Although it is recognized that a greater insight into the processes and debates behind decision-making and the competing perspectives of different stakeholders in the arena would have resulted from using a broader range of methods such as interviews, and observation, the scope of this study precluded the use of such methods. It is suggested that the significance of the issue to information professionals, and to the wider society, would render this an appropriate area for such research to be carried out in the future. From a methodological point of view, Rowlands [7] asserts the need for more 'value-critical' and 'paradigm-critical' approaches towards information policy research, and together with Turner [8] identified the potential for research into the interaction and impact of different theoretical models in an information policy context. In response to this appeal, analysis of the study's findings used Lessig's regulatory models [6] as an interpretative framework to inform the analysis, thus extending our understanding of their potential application to the information policy arena. Rationale -a virtual public sphere? we must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broad-cloth and our woolpacks. [9] The internet is now exerting a significant impact on global patterns of access to information, education, commerce and entertainment. It has been categorized alternately as a neo-utopian liberating force facilitating the expression of alternative and dissenting speech, or as a dystopian space that is responsible for an increased atomization and fragmentation of modern societies. It is suggested here that it offers a forum with the potential to repair, at least in part, the erosion of the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) identified in an earlier epoch by Habermas [10] . According to Habermas, this erosion has led to a reduction in the rational discussion of public affairs that once enabled democratic decision-making to take place. This decline and distortion can be attributed to factors such as an increasing manipulation of information by the media, political 'spin doctors', technocratic 'experts' and commercial advertising. The extension of the role of the state, and the trend towards an increasing legal regulation of private life (Verrechtlichung) has also brought about restrictions on the freedom of the individual [11] . These trends towards increased information manipulation and intervention by the state into areas of personal behaviour and well-being (see [12] , chapter 5 on biopolitics, for further discussion) can be seen to be continuing -and even gathering pace -in the 21st century. The potential remedy to this situation, according to Habermas, lay in the development and promotion of 'ideal speech' situations in which there is genuine equality of participation in the L. Cooke The advent of communications satellites will mean the end of the present barriers to the free flow of information; no dictatorship can build a wall high enough to stop its citizens listening to the voices from the stars. [24] Castells [25, 26] gave early recognition to the potential of the internet as a tool for democracy. He noted that online information access and computer-mediated communication facilitate the diffusion and retrieval of information, and offer possibilities for interaction and debate in an autonomous, electronic forum, bypassing the control of the media [...] More importantly, citizens could form, and are forming, their own political and ideological constellations, circumventing established political structures, thus creating a flexible, adaptable political field. [25, pp. 350-51] L. Cooke
doi:10.1177/0165551506072163 fatcat:pyjbcvgqtngv3i3ijyfcjfr5eq