Sweden and the Information Society: A Step Backward

Sweden is considered as a leader of the information society. The country boasts one of the best broadband networks in the world, 80% of households have an internet connection and it is heading towards progressive policies on file-sharing (thanks to rightholders in particular). In addition, Sweden has taken the transparency lead in the European Union as it has successfully convinced its partners to implement principles of government openness in the functioning of EU institutions since it entered the EU in 1995.

A law passed on Wednesday, however, appears as a huge setback for both the information society and political transparency. The Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag, narrowly passed a surveillance law that will authorize a governmental agency to process and analyze internet and phone communications coming in and out of the country as soon as January 1st, 2009.

Although the Government claims the law does not threaten Swedish citizen’s rights, what about the millions of EU citizens, and other foreigners for that matter, who pass communications to Sweden? The government body, subordinate to the Ministry of Defence, will spy on them and possibly their Swedish correspondents with no respect for their individual liberties. Even the former head of the Swedish intelligence agency said he was shocked by the lack individual rights protection.

Yet, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms protects the respect to one’s privacy along with the freedom of communication and covers all EU member states, Sweden included. In addition, this law obviously undermines the EU’s commitment to promote individual freedoms across its interior borders as well as its painful attempt to become a true political community. Instead of keeping EU citizens under surveillance, Sweden should treat them the same way it treats Swedish citizens, particularly when it comes to fundamental freedoms.
Now the question is: will the EU leaders, especially the European Parliament, remind the Swedish government of the principles underlying its EU membership?

Photo on Flickr by xjyxjy under Creative Commons License.

The Media Under Control ?

Here is a short review of a conference entitled “The Media Under Control” that took place at Sciences Po last thursday. The first speaker was Hervé Bourges, former director of the public TV network (France Television) among many other things. He gave an interesting account of the way French politicians, ever since De Gaulle’s presidency in the 1950’s, have exerted a strong control over the media (all State-owned) until the complete deregulation in 1986.

Then came Alain Finkielkraut, a rather conservative philosopher, who spoke not about the control of politicians over the media, but about the control of the media over politics, which he argued was more dangerous… He referred to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and his concept of the “tyranny of the majority”. According to him, the general public exerts an absolutist power over the media. Reality TV as well as new satirical political talk-shows and other programs of the sort are all reminiscent of a growing “trivial-is-good” trend that is shaping our culture… He went very far off, saying that this form of egalitarianism, the implicit acceptance that everybody’s opinion is of the same value, was even favored by new technologies. Delving shortly into this argument, he called the internet “an environment of horizontality”, saying that on the net everybody can call themselves a journalist. Facts don’t matter, it’s all about opinion, and everybody shouts out at the same time. He went on to draw a parallel between the anticipated secondary education reform in France, which will apparently consist in decreasing the number of lectures for high school students while developing cooperative projects and workshops. All this, according to Finkielkraut, involves that there is no more elite, no more authority. This renunciation of a top-down order is the “death of civilization” (!). This is what he said in a nutshell, and I strongly disagree with the paranoid look he has on the transformations of the media landscape. Of course, there are flaws. Journalistic deontology lacks in what is being reported online, sometimes even by well-established sources. But instead of discriminating the good and the bad, of looking for solutions to these deficiencies, Finkielkraut throws out the baby with the bath water without mentionning the huge opportunities that the internet offers. (About the education reform, well, 7 hours of lectures a day, with very few workshops and very little pedagogic exploration is not the best way to help a teenager to think by themselves nor to arouse their critical mind, which is of the utmost importance in the information society).

Finally, two journalists, Daniel Schneidermann and Rémy Rieffel, came up and talked about the links between big industrial groups (Bouygues, Lagardère, Dassault, Bolloré), main shareholders of France’s mainstream media, and President Sarkozy. The issue is that most of these companies depend on public contracts (road works, armament, transportation, etc), so that there is an obvious risk of collusion. I have to say it was really sad to hear the French media compared with Italian ones.

More info on this alarming situation here :

A feud over press freedom boils in France, The International Herald Tribune
The Rag Trade, The Economist
Sarkozy, the New Berlusconi, The Guardian
Battle for Le Monde Heats Up, Newser

Photo on Flickr by afagen under Creative Commons License.

Policing the Net: Copyright vs. Civil Liberties

The battle that right-holders have been waging against P2P users has proved largely unsuccessful so far. In the US, the methods used by the recording industry’s lobby (RIAA) to track down “pirates” are put into question; in France, the penal sanctions provided by a 2006 Act on author’s rights have had no effect in stopping illegal downloading, and the digital music market is still developing extremely slowly (8% of total music sales).

This year in France, Sarkozy’s government claimed to have found the solution to this endemic problem with the Olivennes Report, an agreement among right holders and Internet Service Providers named after its main author (former head of FNAC, France’s biggest record retailer). The report, which is currently being translated into a bill, would create a new independent authority in charge of dealing with internet copyright infringements. Alerted by right holders who would be given the right of monitoring internet networks to collect personal data about wrongdoers, this public authority would send warning messages to internet subscribers accused of illegal downloading. If other copyright infringements were to be observed, this authority could order ISPs to suspend the incriminated user’s internet access for a duration of up to 12 months (it is only if the user appealed the decision that a judge would be called upon)!

But late April, as the French government was starting to work on the bill, the European Parliament voted a virulent report on Cultural Industries (the Bono Report, named after its main author, a French MEP). This non-legally-binding resolution condemned the French so-called “graduated response”, exhorting the European Commission and the Member States to:

Recognize that the Internet is a vast platform for cultural expression, access to knowledge, and democratic participation in European creativity, bringing generations together through the information society; (the EP) calls on the Commission and the Member States, therefore, to avoid adopting measures conflicting with civil liberties and human rights and with the principles of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness, such as the interruption of Internet access.”

This came as a blow for Sarkozy’s government. But in spite of this downfall, the Culture Minister Christine Albanel soothed rights holders saying that she would push the bill through Parliament before the summer anyway.

Not surprisingly, the proposal was also seriously weakened earlier this week by the preliminary report of the State Council (Conseil d’État), a court of senior jurists that advises the government on legislative bills and also acts as France’s supreme court for administrative law. It suggests that the State Council will redraft the bill, adding a fine of 5000€ maximum as an intermediary sanction (before the removal of the internet access), so as to be able to modulate the degree of the sanction and take into account “the gravity of the copyright infringement”. This new measure aims to ensure that the law respects the constitutional principle of the individualization of penalties. However, this also means that the public authority will have to give a closer look to individual cases, which will slow the procedure and increase its functioning cost, thus undermining its effectiveness in fighting illegal downloading.
Additionally, it is worth noting that for various other reasons the bill has received negative notices from the national telecom regulator (Acerp) and a number of French deputies. According to several sources, the National Commission for Information and Liberties (CNIL) will also give a highly critical opinion on the project.
In the face of all these troubles, it seems that the Government will now postpone the legislative procedure until the fall, much to the despair of right holders.

But today, I came upon this interesting article on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. At the moment, the US, Canada, the EU, Japan and other countries are negotiating a trade treaty outside of the WTO framework. According to the EFF, a leaked memo indicates that the current draft for this Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) mentions, among many other things, “new legal regimes to encourage ISPs to cooperate with right holders, criminal measures, and increased border search powers” (further information on this memo here). It is still very unsure what this treaty is all about, but what is for certain is that treaties are superior to the Law once they have been ratified. If the ACTA came into effect, it would be a pretty insidious way to harmonize legislations on a rather conservative standard.
All this indicates that worldwide intellectual property lobbies are striving to maintain the status quo on cultural rights, even if it means undermining civil liberties. Instead, they should put as much efforts into thinking of other ways to reward artists and cultural industries in the age of the internet.