Online Rights vs Online Security – The Weekly 39

The fundamental rules and norms of social interactions must have been defined by the earliest prehistoric communities. We know this for a fact since no human community can function without such rules. Throughout history, our societies have always strived to lay out the key elements of these norms of cooperation and behaviour in a written, legal form. These customs and rules belong to the most important elements of human civilizations while their potential variances form the lines of separation among the different cultures.

 

Ever since the spread of the Internet, there has been an ongoing debate on how the regulation of digital platforms should relate to the customary norms of “real life”. 

 

Do we need any regulation at all? The issue has become ever more pressing recently.

At the dawn of the Internet, access to the world wide web was limited to a relatively small group of individuals who, due to their socialization, already had certain common norms and ideas about online activities, but this situation has changed fundamentally since then. First, the Internet has become a commonly used cross-generational and cross-cultural platform and second, the appearance of social media has raised online interactivity to a whole new level. These trends were just further intensified by the pandemic lockdowns that forced such masses of people in front of the screens who would probably have been lost for the digital world otherwise.

Where so many people, so many opinions and so many news items appear day by day, real emergency situations can easily occur if there are no regulations in place. The 2000s showed us the kind of room the Internet could give to the freedom of speech and social dialogue, while the 2010s revealed the unfortunate truth that the Internet grants nearly unlimited space for extremist ideologies, too. 

 

Furthermore, it also became clear that highly dangerous groups and echo chambers can be formed even in America or elsewhere in the developed world, and not only in the Middle East that already struggles with severe societal problems. 

 

In that regard, it’s enough to remember the extremely intense atmosphere of the American presidential election, or the siege of the US Capitol.

Of course, populist politicians have already taken notice of these trends. In fact, they were the first to leverage the opportunities offered by Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. And now, the populist politicians who have already secured a firm grip on power in their own countries, are raising the issue of regulating social media and the Internet more and more frequently. As the latest example, Hungary’s increasingly dictatorial governing party Fidesz has just announced that they will adopt a law to regulate tech companies. Of course, we have no doubt what their real intentions are under the usual populist messages about the rights of the people: what they really want is to provide legal protection for the government’s now business-as-usual hate speech and smear campaigns as well as for sabotaging the work of the opposition.

On one side of the scale, we have the real danger arising from the lack of Internet regulation, while on the other side we have the manipulations of the populists wishing to entrench their extremist views with regulations. What can we do in this situation?

In my opinion, if we understand that a significant share of our lives takes place online now, then we must be able to declare that the system’s “self-regulation” is no longer sufficient and some kind of legal regulation is needed, just like it was when the first states were created or when motorization intensified. On the other hand, we must also prevent regulation from leading to the restriction of free speech or from undermining the values associated with the Internet and social media. 

 

Regulation must be a very sensitive and finely-tuned process, similar to the way how a democratic country is able to safeguard the security of its citizens while also guaranteeing their human rights. 

 

Due to the nature of the Internet, the new rules must likely be made at a transnational level because this is the only way to guarantee equal rights for Internet users regardless of their nationality and to keep populist politicians from carrying out their anti-democratic agendas.

 

At the national level, it may be advisable to consider setting up an Ombudsman Office for the Internet, which would guard the freedom of expression and offer proposals to eliminate the risks caused by the Internet. I am convinced that if we focus on the rights and the security of the people, we can create a proportionate European system that does not restrict freedom and actually supports free access to information by dismantling the echo chambers. As far as the latter issue is concerned, I think, as we already explained in Jobbik’s programme for the 2019 European parliamentary elections, the central role in the solution could be played by a European public media service that would use “classic” news media and online platforms to shape democratic public discourse and step up against fake news.

 

I believe the above measures would be an important step towards creating a strong and democratic European community.