Open Internet: The Devil Is In The Detail

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Preserving the open nature of the Internet can be more complicated than it seems, says the Internet Society’s Markus Kummer

Attitudes to online privacy depend on a range of factors and vary widely according to where people are in the world, but the most important thing is maintaining the open nature of the Internet, according to the Internet Society.

Speaking to eWEEK Europe ahead of the Internet Society’s INET conference in Frankfurt next week – and amid moves by the European Commission to strengthen the rules governing the collection and use of personal data online – Markus Kummer, vice president of public policy at the Internet Society, described Internet governance as a “moving target”.

“There is a bit of a generational gap between the digital natives and the digital immigrants,” he said. “The older generation that did not grow up with the Internet has a different attitude, and also there are cultural differences. In different areas of the world it is felt differently,” he said.

Americans less concerned about privacy

“Even between Western Europe and the United States, which are culturally very close, the approach [in Europe] is on the whole much more prudent when it comes to privacy, whereas US citizens seem to be somewhat less concerned. I am not saying there are not individuals or groups that are very active, but the average citizen seems to be less concerned.”

He explained that the average American citizen tends to place a greater degree of trust in the state and the government, whereas Europeans tend to be more wary of government taking on a ‘Big Brother’ role.

“Even if you have a trust-based relationship with your authorities, there are limits to what the citizen wants the government to know, and the government is also very aware of that. It’s part of the social contract,” he explained.

The notion is perhaps ironic in light of recent news that the FBI is calling for a push to expand its capabilities in intercepting online communications. FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni appeared before Congress on Thursday to discuss the increasing difficulties the agency has had in accruing electronic evidence for ongoing cases.

“In the ever-changing world of modern communications technologies, the FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications,” she said.

Avoiding knee-jerk reactions

According to Kummer, the key is to define online data protection policy from the bottom up, in consultation with all relevant stake holders. “Don’t just leave it to the government to decide, and certainly not to people in charge of security; but also don’t leave it to industry. It’s important to involve the society groups and the watchdogs.”

He said that, while governments play an important role in maintaining the openness of the Internet, there is not necessarily a need for new laws for every problem that surfaces. Governments should be part of the Internet ecosystem, sharing their experience, exchanging information and helping to establish best practices.

“There are tendencies by governments, when a problem comes up, to have ‘knee-jerk’ reactions,” he said. “Child pornography is a particularly sensitive subject. Because child pornography is very offensive and of course very illegal, governments sometimes feel tempted to do something – they feel pressure from their voters.”

Only last week, in fact, a backbench Tory MP claimed there is a “scary degree of favourable consensus” between Internet porn campaigners, the government and the ISP community over Internet filters that would require computer users to opt in, if they want to access pornography from their home computers.

Claire Perry, the MP for the Devizes constituency in Wiltshire, is one of the main political supporters for the Safemedia campaign group, who are concerned about the possible influence that Internet pornography could have on children.

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