The issue of who regulates the Internet, how, and why has long been a hot topic for policymakers in the digital sphere. Once seen as an unregulated "Wild West", the boundless arena of cyberspace is one in which traditional state actors increasingly want to perform. But how can states impose their will in an ecosystem without frontiers, replete with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), end-to-end encryption (E2E), The Onion Router (TOR) and everything they entail? And more importantly, what do these systems of regulation say about states and the values and principles by which they seek to define themselves?
For the last three months, Institut Montaigne has worked closely with five students from the Sciences Po Master in Public Affairs: Fiona Olivier, Camila Albornoz, Seung Cheol Ohk and Mei Moriizumi. Under the supervision of Dominique Cardon, Director of the Sciences Po Medialab and Théophile Lenoir, Head of the Digital Program at Institut Montaigne, they have analyzed and compared some of the emerging systems of content regulation in China, France and the United Kingdom (UK).
Three specific harms were looked into: disinformation, hate speech and terrorist content. These three harms represent the gamut of online content, from content universally condemned across the globe, to contested terms yet to be clearly defined by law. China, France and the UK are among the first in the world to develop a clear regulatory system for online content (Germany was left aside in this study given its similarity to France on content regulation).
Our findings show the extent to which the design and delivery of online content regulation allow states to impose methods of control and cultural norms, and thus shift the balance of power in their direction. However, this greater sovereignty from the states makes international regulation more difficult because of a lack of agreement on what constitutes problematic content.
Freedom of speech vs. national security?
There are several rationales which justify the regulation of the Internet, varying from the protection of national security, safeguarding human dignity and ensuring physical safety of children, to the promotion of economic well-being. Among them, governments are generally willing to implement tougher regulations when national security is at stake.
China, France and the UK have different views on online discourses as national security threats. Countering terrorist content online is where the three countries consider the harm as a national security threat and implement the strictest regulations. British society accepts the government’s online surveillance and curtailments on their freedom of speech if it leads to the prevention of terrorism. France also considers terrorism as one of the most serious threats to international and domestic peace and security. Police in both the UK and France actively monitor social networks for terrorist material, with social media platforms also used as domains for intelligence-gathering and counter-radicalization. Therefore, on terrorist content, the regulatory practices of the UK, France and China are similar.
France, China and the UK take a different approach on disinformation. In China, disinformation is considered, like terrorist content, as a national security risk and a crime, justifying strict control over content. In the UK, although disinformation is not a crime, the government sees it as a potential national security threat, with foreign actors seeking to influence its citizens. Therefore, in the UK, disinformation is qualified as "fourth-generation espionage".
Aside from publishing its Online Harms White Paper to set out a new framework on online content regulation, the government has established new organizations to tackle and monitor online disinformation.