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The Internet Needs Freedom but There Have to Be Limits

How can we combine protecting personal data with the freedom of  information? Why have a tax for internet users? How far can states go in internet regulation? These and other questions were discussed at the 4th International Summer School on Cyber Law at HSE.  

The Summer School on Cyber Law is traditionally organised by the Centre for Data Protection Law at HSE with the help of Russian IT and legal companies. This year applications to join the course, which brings together students and professionals, came from more than ten countries, from the US to Malaysia. The organisers suggested themes for discussion related to current trends in the development of internet law in Russia and around the world: personal data protection on the internet, new models for licensing digital content, network neutrality as a principle for providing internet access, questions on managing the internet and internet content regulation.

Does the Internet remember all of us?

One of the hottest topics was the high profile ‘right to be forgotten’ - a legal category which hit the news in 2014 after a decision in the European Court in the case of Google Spain versus Mario Costeja Gonzalez, and was subsequently introduced into Russian Law in July 2015.  

The right to be forgotten is a right of private citizens to remove on request, links to personal information from search engines and to outdated or slanderous statements. This concept has plenty of critics because it opposes the right to private life against the right to freely search for and spread information and the right to free access to knowledge. 

In the discussion, summer school participants pointed out that the proposed mechanism does not stop the spread of information on the internet but significantly complicates the functioning of search services which deal with all the work on communications from citizens. Furthermore, misuse of the right to remove information could create problems in qualifying information as slanderous. It was suggested that the right to be forgotten should not be extended to people in the public sphere, such as politicians and scandalous celebrities.   

Who benefits from neutrality?

There was a section on issues of net neutrality. This is the principle of providing services of internet access, without discrimination on the part of the providers to any content - regardless of the content provider, user, internet service or application, device for access to the internet, etc. The defenders of net neutrality believe it to be the most important guarantee of an open internet, freedom of information and freedom of economic activity. 

Roberto Canguru and Pedro Oliveira Aitor of Portugal and Claudio Lucena from Brazil presented papers on net neutrality. It’s worth noting that Brazil along with Chile and the Netherlands, Slovenia and several other states are among the small number of countries where the principle of net neutrality is written into the statute books.

The legal enforcement of net neutrality does not correspond largely to the interests of internet providers because it imposes further responsibilities on them, limits freedom to control traffic and takes away some of the economic stimuli for investment in developing the internet. Internet service providers have mixed attitudes to net neutrality. In general the principle is to their advantage as it acts as a guarantee against misuse by providers. But in some cases, diverging from it can play a positive role for them if they are prepared to pay for priority access to data transfer infrastructures.

Net neutrality gives internet users equal access to all services. At the same time, users are much more often concerned about the quality of access to a particular internet resource they prefer to use. But net neutrality does not solve the issue of quality.

The principle of net neutrality will soon be introduced into the EU - at least, European bureaucrats have prepared the guidelines. The summer school participants don’t suppose that Russia, currently has the basis for introducing the mechanism into law.

Why tax the internet?

The recent Russian Ministry of Culture initiative to introduce a global licence for using digital content on the internet did not escape the attention of the summer school participants. The basic idea of the licence is to establish a compulsory fee (what’s been called the internet tax) for every user. It proposes that these payments should be collected by the Society for collective management of author’s and related rights (OKUP), with internet providers in an agreement with internet users, acting as intermediaries. OKUP should also be responsible for distributing the money gathered among the copyright owners according to the actual use of material.

A discussion of this proposal arose during a lecture by Nikita Danilov of the Megafon company on new Russian laws in internet regulation. Besides, the concept of global licences became the main theme of the section organised by Yandex. Company lawyers Ruslan Nurgaliev and Roman Krupenin gave lectures on different ways to license digital content, collect payment for the use of material subject to copyright on the internet. Afterwards the students on the summer school divided into groups to play a game debating whether it makes sense to introduce the ‘internet tax’. One group represented the users, another the internet providers, and a third the rights owners. During the game, more criticism of the proposed licence arose than support for it. The scepticism arises from the many hidden problems and technical and legal organisational contradictions, which are connected with adapting authorial and related rights to the demands of the internet era.  

Attention was drawn to the European Union 2014 ‘Directive on collective management of authors and related rights and multi-territorial licensing of music copyright for online use’. Many experts believe it was one of the first and relatively correct steps towards solving the problem of content distribution on the internet. This kind of step by step approach looks preferable to making radical legal changes in digital content use on the internet.  

What can Russia and Europe learn from each other?

One of the highlights of the summer school was the lecture by Marie-Christine Janssens from the Centre for Intellectual Property Rights at the Catholic University in Leuven which the Centre for Data Protection Law at HSE has connections going back many years. Professor Janssens talked about adapting authors’ rights to the needs of the digital age taking as an example the evolution of EU legislation.

In general, comparing European and Russian practices in the sphere of internet regulation was a fascinating part of the summer school. ‘Before I came here I was at another summer school in Austria on intellectual property and ICT’, said Pedru Aitor. ‘That school was very interesting, but it was only about European legislation. Even if we discussed an intellectual property case, where a russian pirates material defended by copyright, we didn’t look into it more deeply. A discussion on the same issues in Russia from a different point of view takes the conversation to another level. Now I know more about it. I’m going to examine some of the ideas voiced here in my future research.’ 

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