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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Could Europe introduce a China-style internet firewall?

Digital sovereignty is high on the EU’s agenda. The bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA) – for which the consultation period is underway – is due to update the rules governing the internet, in particular targeting the dominance and impunity of monolithic big tech.

It’s not clear what form this legislation will take yet, but a new policy paper moots a radical idea: the creation of  a “European internet”, which “like the Chinese firewall” could block services that condoned “unlawful conduct” from third parties.

In practice, this would mean something like being able to block Facebook from the internet for those based in Europe, if it didn’t comply with legislation on, for example, removing hate speech.

The report was commissioned by the European Parliament Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection in the context of work on the DSA. Written by innovation consultancy Future Candy, it advises that the DSA should include an action plan for creating a “European internet” in order to foster a thriving European digital ecosystem.

The report reads: “Foreign web services could become part of such a digital ecosystem but must adhere to the rules and standards of the EU – such as democratic values, data protection, data accessibility, transparency and user friendliness.”

It says this would be achieved through “a top-level infrastructure, high-speed 5G or a 6G data network and a firewall”, claiming it would help boost European businesses in the internet ecosystem.

But experts have been quick to poke holes in the proposition. Lukasz Olejnik, an independent technology researcher and advisor points out that, “if this approach is meant to be limited to industrial isolation, spillover effects to other domains of life would be unavoidable. If the EU block would desire to isolate its industries, won’t others be invited to do the same? What happens then and where does any potential escalation lead to?”

The comparison to China’s approach – which involves instructing internet operators to remove and block content that the government doesn’t approve of in a programme of mass censorship – has raised eyebrows. Olejnik says that in its current form, the report “may be seen as condoning the Great Firewall approach”.

“This is unfortunate because the Great Firewall is not limited to policies aimed at business and industry,” he says. “It’s a larger package that also includes censorship and implications for other freedoms.”

“Anyone’s view on this will depend on whether they think it’s a good idea to reinforce national (or regional) borders by building walls in cyberspace,” says Graham Smith, internet lawyer at Bird and Bird.

He is firmly opposed, summarising his views as “‘keeping information out is keeping people in'”. “I have likened it to jamming foreign broadcasts, something that only the most repressive states did in peacetime,” he says.

Professor of internet law at the University of Sussex, Chris Marsden, says that this could reflect a wider trend in Europe and the United States, where “people are beginning to come around the idea that you can require dominant operators to do certain things, as long as they’re demanded by law”. This could cover platforms like Facebook and Google or even internet service providers (ISPs).

Marsden says that the European Parliament has long sought to place more culpability on internet operators. He says that up until now, it’s been “very heavily resisted by certain member states”, but given the UK was the key one, the DSA could represent an interesting test case of European policy making post-Brexit.

However, despite shifting standards, Marsden says it’s unlikely that the idea for a European internet will go ahead, pointing out that “legislation is never as strong as what’s initially promulgated and enforcement is often an afterthought.”

Olejnik also believes such an idea would face “considerable opposition”, particularly to the framing of the proposition. “It was Europe that was supposed to be the standard-setter. [But] this report advocates the emulation of China?” he says.

Experts claim the report generally lacks substance, and fails to provide methodology or further grounding for its more outlandish recommendations. The comparative frivolity of the report is underscored by an absence of any mention of interoperability – one of the most discussed means of curtailing the dominance of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft).