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Internet governance discussions at European University Institute: Thoughts from Florence, Italy (2)

Stepping away from generic theoretical considerations about the Internet governance system and processes, further lectures tackled specific areas where the Internet has transformed social and economic relationships, analysing the role and impact of regulations in this context.

 

Transforming political participation

 

With regard to the impact of the Internet and digital technologies on society and democracy, Professor Alexander Trechsel turned to the transformations that have taken place in political participation. He argued that ICT may facilitate the monitoring of and communication with elected representatives between election moments when the citizens’ interest in politics is typically higher (building on the virtual election platform project proposed in 2004). However the downturn of the pervasive use of ICT tools in the public sphere that we are facing today is the voyeuristic effect and an emergence of a paparazzi democracy where any recorded image may become news propagated virally, to the detriment of substantive political issues. The Internet has increased existing cleavages and fragmentations of voters, but on the other hand it allows for the aggregation of groups and citizen initiatives, as well as a better orientation in the political sphere (as exemplified by the EU Profiler application developed for the European Parliament elections in 2009).

 

The effect of regulation on innovation

 

Next it was time for a closer look at the actual regulatory regime applicable to the Internet and to consider the range of options from no regulation at all to a restrictive regulatory regime. This was the analysis provided by Professor Nicolas Curien regarding the role of regulators and the effects on innovation. Unlike previous infrastructures that contributed to society progress, electronic communication networks are themselves the innovation space (creation and implementation of innovative technologies and services). Therefore any regulation on the network infrastructure may impact directly on what is happening inside the networks, which is characterised by high dynamism and unpredictability. Thus regulators need to abandon the purely prescriptive approach in favour of a more participatory method, facilitating communication and involvement of various stakeholders in order to find appropriate solutions to maintain the market climate that allows healthy competition and incentives for innovation and reduces uncertainty.

 

The application of regulation

 

Professor Giovanni Sartor presented the legal framework for service providers’ liability in the USA and the EU together with some landmark judicial cases in both jurisdictions, as well as the relation with data protection existing and proposed provisions in the EU. This provided the opportunity for new questions to be raised and debated by participants, such as the competition between rights: how should contractual clauses between the hosting providers and the users (uploaders) be interpreted in relation to fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and privacy when they state the provider’s right to remove content that breaches the provider’s self-established policy? What incentives do providers have to exclude certain types of information from their platforms and how does that affect the freedom ‘to seek, receive and impart information’ (UNDHR, Article 19)?

 

Intellectual property rights

 

Professor David Levine demonstrated from an economic point of view that the current IPR system is excessive and is stifling innovation and the reuse of information. In fact, it protects the interests and the wealth of industry to the detriment of creators (be they budding artists or inventors) and consumers alike. Among the arguments presented, statistics showed that the number of employed artists (in the USA) remained the same over the 15-year period when technologies like peer-to-peer flourished and the artists’ bulk income originated from live performances. Moreover, copyright protection technologies (like DRMs in the Sony BMG case) may clash with other users’ rights (privacy, property) by acting like malicious software and are utterly inefficient in providing absolute protection against piracy. The Professor argued for a drastic limitation of copyright protection length (e.g. 12 years’ initial protection and renewals for a maximum 10 years) and the expansion of fair use.

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