Monday, June 18, 2012

Internet freedom in Ireland: apathy is not a policy

The OSCE Dublin Conference on Internet Freedom is just starting (livestream) where numerous superb speakers will be discussing fundamental rights online. It prompted me to wonder - is Ireland a worthy host? How does the overall Irish track record on online freedoms stack up?

Taken as a whole, it strikes me that the internet is generally quite free in Ireland, but this is a result of apathy rather than policy. By that I mean that Ireland compares well on metrics such as the number of government censorship requests to Google, and looks good when compared against e.g. our astonishingly authoritarian neighbour. However, this is largely as a result of government failure to act. Where the Irish government has acted it has almost always done so in a way which threatens or at most is only neutral in relation to online rights.

The most obvious example is mass surveillance via data retention, where the Irish state was a leader in seeking to impose this throughout Europe. But there are numerous others. Draconian Irish defamation law continues to threaten freedom of expression, and the Defamation Act 2009 did very little indeed to protect online speech, ignoring recommendations from the Government's own expert report on defamation law. The recent copyright statutory instrument seems intended to permit internet blocking at the behest of the music industry, in a way which is likely to be without notice to blocked sites, to lack transparency, and to cause significant collateral damage. The role of the Data Protection Commissioner has been threatened by double digit percentage cuts in funding, leading to a situation where enforcement of privacy rights in Ireland is massively under resourced. In the same way, there is no adequate discipline for Irish police who abuse communications records to spy for their own private purposes. The list of negatives could go on.

What about the positives? Only one comes to mind - the recent establishment of the Copyright Review Committee to examine fair use and wider reform. Even here, however, any impact on fundamental rights will be incidental: the aim of the Government in setting up the review group was primarily commercial - to promote "innovation" and employment. Any impact on fundamental rights is incidental.

The conference was just opened by Eamon Gilmore, who spoke in proud terms about James Joyce, censorship and freedom of expression. (I suspect he's not familiar with the way in which the Joyce estate has abused copyright law to silence critics.) It strikes me, though, that for all these fine words the Irish state has a long way to go in showing genuine respect for fundamental rights online. Irish rights online are largely the result of apathy, and apathy is not a policy.