Euro-IR Project Main Index



APC Internet Law Network

Project Report

Mathias Klang
klang@informatik.gu.se




Introduction

The ability to censor communication has traditionally been mainly in the hands of the state. This centralised entity has over a long period of time both developed and refined its capability for censor at the same time as it has slowly developed a more liberal attitude towards what individuals say about it. For the person or organisation that wishes to speak ill of a state there are certain advantages.

One such advantage is that in many cases the laws, which will govern any future dispute, are known in advance and will most commonly change gradually.

Another advantage is the states desire to champion the cause of free speech and open dialogue. Most states today at least nominally accept the need to allow its citizens to speak freely and any limitation to this right are often well known by those who wish to criticise the state.

A third advantage is the fact that the state cannot hide its actions or itself in an effective manner. There will always be a degree of information that can be obtained by the active citizen.

The fourth advantage is that states exist within a system, which requires collaboration by other states. Any "misbehaviour" by one state will incur the displeasure of the other states within the system. This leads to the effect that activists can pressurise their own states to the advantage of activists within another state.

Today many researchers argue that the power of the state is in the decline. This is mostly due to two important factors the first is the growth and globalisation of business and the second is the ubiquity of information and communications technology (ICT). In the decline of state power another actor has stepped in to wield power previously only states could have. The power of corporations is especially strong on the Internet which is rapidly evolving from a free-for-all forum to an important economic tool which corporations need to harness to improve their profitability. The harnessing of the Internet comes at the cost of individuals right to speech - a right that is only guaranteed against the state.



Goal

One of the aims of the APC is to support the need for free speech not only when it involves negative commentary of state activity but more often the role of the APC today concerns the aiding of free speech against private multinational actors.

The importance of corporate actors to the international speech debate has grown widely and today it is not enough for those who would defend speech to be able to protect themselves and their speakers against states, but they must also be prepared to defend themselves against the international corporate world.

The APC Internet rights project has had as its goal to enter into the arena of free speech and become an important resource for those who would fight for human rights - especially for the right to promote free discussion in an open society.

In the practical day-to-day work the open society is not necessarily the fight of the individual against the state but is often the right of the individual/organisation against the corporation.

To be able to bring important issues to a wider audience the activist must be able to speak openly and freely without fear of reprisal. This right is not one which is generally accepted or supported by corporations and nor is the right to criticise corporations generally protected under the law. Therefore corporations who prefer to silence negative publicity can use the law to their advantage in their desire to silence any and all critical voices.

The APC is part of an international movement to redress this imbalance by helping legitimate activists publicise their cause. In its work the APC must be prepared to resolve many pressing issues and act on very short notice.

One such pressing issue is the legal consequences of online activism, both for the activist and for the APC in its role as a supporter of the activist. The APC and the activist must under very short notice be able to interpret the legal consequences of either their own actions or the consequences of any communications received from a state or corporate actor.

In an effort to be better able to meet the challenges faced by all those involved and for the APC to provide better support for their activists the APC started the legal rapid response network project. The purpose of the network has been to support the work done by other branches of the APC. It quickly became apparent that the legal issues required a three-pronged approach.

First the legal rapid response network should work for a deeper understanding of the legal issues involved in the work of the APC. The purpose of this was to educate the APC, to minimise the legal liability of the APC and its activists and to promote greater understanding among the users/activists of the legal issues involved in the free speech debate and to carry out a user driven debate on the purposes and weaknesses of free speech legislation when applied to an online environment.

The second issue was to be prepared. Once disputes arise the APC or the activist must have quick access to practical and relevant legal advice. This advice must also be pertinent to the jurisdictions involved. Very often the activist speaker involved, once challenged, has very little time to research and meet the allegations made by the opposing part. Therefore the APC has developed a resource pool of legally trained, free speech oriented lawyers. This group can provide both training and provide updates besides being prepared to answer specific questions when they arise. The practical and theoretical legal expertise represented by the resource pool is a decisive step towards this goal.

The third goal concerns the long-term commitment of the APC towards the actual creation of Internet related law. By creating the legal group the APC has created a forum where legal academia can gather to discuss issues revolving around the actual practice of free speech online. By collaborating with legal academics the APC has created the possibility of subtly forming the way in which Internet law is perceived. The forum includes many of the heavy names in the present day legal academic community and also a number of active legal researchers. The forum covers several jurisdictions and legal schools, this provides for a greater breadth of discussion and a widening up of the legal debate from its traditionally Anglo-Saxon case law approach.



Practical Steps

The legal response network was the creation of the APC group "Rapid Response Network" which held a workshop in 2002 to which it invited a small group of lawyers with interests in Internet law and human rights. This group worked in identifying legal issues faced by the APC and the activists in their work and drafted advisory documents to help these groups work within the framework of existing law. The group also formed the base of the future legal forum.

Since this meeting the legal forum discussion list has grown from a few names to include 50 legally trained Internet/human rights focused lawyers. The list covers 20 jurisdictions, is connected with 14 law faculties and 22 NGO or private organisations.



Euro-IR Project Main Index