Joe McNamee

Are our digital rights in danger?

With the explosion in data-driven business models, self-regulation, fake news and online propaganda, many are concerned that our fundamental rights are under threat as never before. The Internet offers unprecedented benefits to society, but with power increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few, digital rights activists are raising the alarm about threats to privacy, freedom of expression and right to information.

Executive Director of European digital right organization EDRi, Joe McNamee, spoke to the Good Technology Collective.

By Jennifer Baker

Are lawmakers taking the threat to digital rights seriously?

There has always been a problematic tendency to outsource all public policy problems to online companies. However, actions taken by online companies are outside the legal framework of national constitutions and international law, which undermines safeguards. Governments use “soft” pressure to persuade companies to delete or block content, which undermines accountability.

In the absence of accountability, nobody has an interest in investing in redress mechanisms or review processes to identify and mitigate any harm that is caused – from either a public policy or fundamental rights perspective. On top of this, policy makers tend to assume that they can regulate all online companies as if they had the business models, customer bases and resources of the Internet giants. This is harmful to the online ecosystem.

Where are the biggest dangers?

Privatization of law enforcement online and the incompatibility of individual autonomy and mass profiling. 

What impact do you think the current data explosion will have on competition law and democracy?

Competition law needs to be adapted to take into account the exponential value of merging databases, and, basically, democracy and the data explosion are not compatible.

Can citizens rely on law to protect them without specialist knowledge?

Can ordinary citizens be expected to understand the consequences of profiling, the unpredictable outcomes of in-house profiling by small or large businesses or the new insights leading from mergers of different companies? No.

So should tech companies step in?

Businesses exist to make profit. Companies can regulate themselves when they see a business interest in doing so. Self-regulation as a result of government coercion will not work, if there is no business interest in this activity. Tech companies regulating their customers (filtering, blocking, deletion, etc., of communications) is not self-regulation, it is privatized regulation or privatized policing.