Digital Civil Rights in Europe

Article published in EDRi-gram 8.24.
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Private-sector attempts to undermine and attack the ability of WikiLeaks to function on the Internet have attracted much attention. Their domain name (wikileaks.org) was was taken out of service by EveryDNS, their ability to collect funds was restricted by Paypal, Visa and Mastercard while Amazon deleted their website. When did we abandon the rule of law and replace it with summary justice meted out by private companies? How does it happen that private companies can punish a website that has never been convicted of a crime? Why would they do this?

The truth is that there have been years of “behind-the-scenes” efforts by (mostly western) governments to persuade, reward or coerce Internet companies into developing censorship structures. Under the harmless-sounding flag of “self-regulation,” and demands that Internet providers take more responsibility for illegal online activity, a comprehensive infrastructure is being put in place. The purpose of this infrastructure is to hand over quasi-judicial responsibilities to private companies, which, less bound by the obligations imposed on courts, impose summary justice on those accused of illegal activity online. This action can be to have payments being blocked by payment providers, websites deleted and Internet traffic filtered by Internet providers, slowly and imperceptibly eroding the rule of law. While western governments must respect their constitutions, life becomes much simpler when private companies can take extra-judicial action against uncomfortable online information.

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