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Tag: France

Why can’t you be more like Estonia? : Creeping Illiberalism on the European Internet

  • February 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Why can’t you be more like Estonia?

 

Source: Pixabay

Creeping Illiberalism on the European Internet

 

At the recent Masters of Digital conference, one of the panels looked ahead to the future of the digital world in 2040.  One of the topics arising was the future of online freedoms 20 years from now. The Internet Society’s Regional Vice President Europe, Frederic Donck stressed that we need to respect internet freedoms in addressing internet policies, we should not discard them while addressing other issues. In English, we would call this ‘not throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. In other words, don’t throw out something good while attempting to get rid of a problem.

 

The UK is not paying much attention to this concept of digital freedoms. In a previous CFEP blog, Otto Ilveskero told a cautionary tale about overstepping the mark on regulating fake news: “regulators can sidestep much of the accusations regarding silencing the freedom of speech[…] by regulating not offensive content, but content that is harmful to the safety and wellbeing of others.” With its Online Harms White Paper, the UK has used the same language about protecting the safety and wellbeing of others, but as a defence of giving the state more power to decide what is harmful ‘enough’ to require regulation.

 

It seeks to create a new regulator to handle disinformation, trolling, selling illegal items, non-consensual pornography, hate speech, harassment, promotion of self-harm, and content uploaded by people in prison. Said regulator would be able to issue fines or hold senior management staff liable for breaches of its codes of practice. Notwithstanding that this is a very long and varied list of issues, there’s another, similarly idiomatic, issue. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

 

The promotion of self-harm category is a case that sums up the delicate issues of freedom and of protection at play online. Instagram has increased its efforts to remove material relating to self-harm and suicide following the death of a British teenager. That had an unintended effect on other young women worldwide, who were finding photographs of themselves removed because their scars were visible. For them, that was a value judgment that their appearance was unacceptable and potentially damaging to others. Ethical debates can be had to weigh up these kinds of issues, but when we talk about online content filters, that nuance is gone. All an algorithm can tell you is that it has detected a picture containing scars.

 

It is not just Britain that has rushed to solve social ills without considering the nuances and the potential impact on the online freedoms we have all come to cherish. France has enacted a law to tackle ‘fake news’. In short, it allows judges to order the removal of articles within three months of an election. Upon getting a report from a public prosecutor, political party, or individual, the judge has 48 hours to decide whether it constitutes ‘fake news’. To qualify, it must be obviously false, deliberately spread on a large-scale, and lead to a disturbance of the peace or the fairness of an election.

 

Sounds reasonable? Imagine such a law in the hands of a country where the judiciary has been captured by the ruling party. Where the leader has a tendency to deem any inconvenient story to be manifestly untrue, to be spreading because of the media and the political opposition, and to suggest that these actions are fuelling violence. When moderate politicians grant themselves additional regulatory powers, they should consider whether they are truly comfortable with what those powers would look like in the hands of populists.

 

On an entirely unrelated note, Hungary has also been known to use otherwise innocuous measures in negative ways. Privacy rights are more important than ever in a digital age, where everything we do can be filmed and everything we say can be recorded and held against us. Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, may have had a similar thought when the Supreme Court ruled news site 444.hu violated his privacy rights – as a non-public figure – by publishing a video interview of him without his explicit consent. Tiborcz’s company had contracts with local governments that the 444 and other investigative media outlets found suspicious. Potentially, as a man facing corruption allegations, he may have been even more relieved about limiting his exposure to public scrutiny.

 

Even Germany is not immune to this trend of creeping illiberalism cloaked in defending rights or resolving social problems. Its domestic law, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), is arguably the precursor to EU efforts in tightening up content removal rules. The NetzDG requires removal of ‘obviously illegal’ content in under 24 hours, and within seven days for non-obviously illegal content. An entire satirical magazine lost its Twitter account, albeit temporarily, to NetzDG enforcement. Companies have an incentive to remove first and ask questions later: they might get fined up to €50m for non-removal, and incorrect removals have no real consequences.

 

We see the same policies creeping on to the EU stage with the Regulation on Preventing the Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online (TERREG) and the Copyright Directive. TERREG goes hand-in-hand with online filters, with the same problems regarding algorithms and context. A key example relates to the wrongful deletion of YouTube videos that served as evidence of war crimes in Syria. The Copyright Directive also raises the spectre of algorithms detecting violations and is out of touch with a new wave of young voters who want to see better from their European Union.

There’s a country getting it right, according to Freedom House. Estonia, keeping up its good reputation for all things digital, has protected its people’s online freedoms. They punish truly harmful actions. If someone incites hatred, violence or discrimination on the basis of particular characteristics they can be fined. If those actions lead to death, negative health impacts, or other serious results, they could find themselves spending up to 3 years in an Estonian jail. Any blocks that do exist mostly revolve around unlicensed gambling sites. They opposed the Copyright Directive and are using their technological reputation to lead on cybersecurity efforts.

Overall, the Internet does bring both strife and success. They are fundamentally intertwined. As long as there are debates online, there will be bad-faith participants. As long as e-commerce exists, e-criminals will too. If governments fail to balance freedoms strongly enough, they will throw out the heart of the internet and may merely be left holding a bucket of straggling criminals.

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Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

Source: Pexels

France’s short term political calculations store up serious trouble for the future of Europe

 

Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a ‘geopolitical Commission’ while setting out her future objectives. Emmanuel Macron may have just killed that vision off before her Commission even begins. His decision to block starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania makes it difficult to take the EU seriously as a foreign policy actor in its own right.

In terms of foreign policy, there are two main schools of thought: the liberal internationalist school, and the realist school. A simplified explanation of the difference is that realism is about the importance of state power and interests above all else, liberal internationalism highlights compromise and cooperation as an alternative to pure power politics. Whichever theory you subscribe to, Macron’s action is damaging.

Firstly, liberal internationalism. The EU itself is a key example of this theory: states fight for their different interests in meeting rooms instead of battlefields. For many European states emerging from authoritarian governance, the fledgling European project meant peace, democracy, and prosperity. That is still the case today, with aspiring members having seen the EU’s transformative effect and so willingly making sacrifices and reforms to join the club. North Macedonia and Albania have made radical, dramatic changes to reach this point: the former even changed its name, and the latter has agreed to have all its judges vetted by an independent panel. Both states have normalised their relations with other countries in the region, which is of paramount importance in the Balkans, the “powder keg” of Europe.  As of yet, they have little to show for it.

 

Rewarding other states for ‘good behaviour’ only works if they believe the rewards will materialise. If you are promised cake as a child for doing your chores well and then the cake never comes, why would you keep making the effort? More importantly, your parents would not be able to convince you with incentives ever again. Macron’s decision does not just alienate North Macedonia and Albania. He has also signalled to every other country in the enlargement procedure that their reform efforts may have been in vain. Partners beyond the Western Balkans also have no way of knowing whether any commitments made will survive contact with the Council. Macron has not just seriously jeopardised the EU’s enlargement strategy: he has dealt a blow to the concept of liberal internationalism as a whole. For the  Balkans, that means a potential resurgence of nationalist forces. North Macedonia’s rescheduled elections could end up being the canary in the coal mine. For the EU, that means a serious loss of credibility overall. Liberal internationalism is its lifeblood, and if that theory cannot bear fruit in the real world, the EU cannot be an effective international actor.

From a realist perspective, perhaps France has its own interests that would make such a risk worth it. When questioned by Euractiv, Macron’s close ally Natalie Loiseau MEP cited concerns about Brexit and the resulting EU budgetary gap as needing to be resolved before opening enlargement processes, but claimed that France was still committed to closer relations with the Western Balkans. Unofficially, their motivation lies in the fear of public opposition to enlargement, and an attempt to secure compromise from Germany on other EU-related files. Franco-German transactional deals are a key example of how persistent power politics can be. Although France may have legitimate problems with the enlargement process, reforms could be enacted even when North Macedonia and Albania are in the process of their accession negotiations. In reality, France is seeking a figleaf to cover its naked indulgence in power politics.

However, it’s not just the existing members of the EU who may be drawn to the allure of power politics. Serbia, which has already been drifting off the European path, has taken this latest decision as vindication of that move. President Vucic’s statement to the FT that “We need to take care of ourselves. That’s the only way, that’s the only approach. Everything else would be very irresponsible[.]” is the epitome of power politics. For the Western Balkans, “caring for themselves” involves decisions that will drastically undermine EU influence in the region.

This is where Von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’ will run into difficulties. Geopolitically, the EU is not the only fish in the sea. There are other places that Western Balkan states can look, as they grow frustrated with unmet promises. China, and its Belt and Road initiative, is only too happy to step into the economic investment gap left by the EU. Again, it is  not only EU foreign policy and enlargement goals that have been sacrificed at the altar of French power plays. China just provides finance without the conditions: it will happily fund energy and transport projects, some of them environmentally damaging, while the EU tries to push in the opposite direction. Turkey is eyeing the region, building its influence not only with the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians, but also the key player in the Balkans, Serbia. Russia – as usual – will react to such developments with thinly disguised glee. Ending the presumption that all roads lead to Europe is Moscow’s key Western Balkan policy aim. It seeks to become one of several ‘managers’ in the region, and so will happily take advantage of the EU’s lack of political will.

What may have seemed like an effective political strategy for France in the short-term will come back to bite it in the future. Even if it ends up securing the internal reforms it has demanded, it will have done so at great cost externally. The EU will face a loss of credibility, and a loss of stability in its neighbourhood. Any future promises it makes to countries in the Western Balkans would be met with a simple “Thank you, but we know the French will sabotage us in the end – we will stick with our reliable new partners in Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara.”

 

It is not France who faces the brunt of the consequences of its actions. The people of the Western Balkans will be put at risk by resurgent nationalism, and the European project will be blamed for failing to meet citizen demands. Together, those two risks are the potential sparks for the next big crisis.

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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: the EU and Trade Conditionality

The Amazon case reflects both the potential of the EU’s market power and how inconsistently it is exercised

Source: Pixabay

Most people online have probably seen the photos of the Amazon burning, as they spread rapidly across social media and developed into a hashtag. As with any online movement, it has suffered from its fair share of misleading content but has also pushed world leaders to act. The EU is no exception to this: its painstakingly negotiated trade deal with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) hangs in the political balance.

 

Emmanuel Macron spotted an opportunity. In threatening to block the deal, he was able to challenge Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who allowed people to set fires without having to worry about being punished. France, alone, would not have the economic weight to enforce environmental norms, but the sheer weight of the EU market gives it a potentially high level of impact. Chad Damro, an academic, described this phenomenon as Market Power Europe. In other words, the vastness of the single market means that access controls, EU regulations, and interest contestation within it naturally have a knock-on effect on other countries and foreign firms. As such, the EU can and does use its market in carrot and stick measures,  and deploys it to encourage its partners to adopt EU policies and norms.

 

The reality follows the theory to an extent, concerning EU action in Latin America. It shapes the environmental agenda through dialogues, development aid, Association Agreements and environmental programmes. Its Association Agreements and Free Trade Agreements with Latin American countries are conditional on upholding certain environmental positions. However, the EU’s influence levels in Latin America are weaker than in its neighbourhood. It is also hard to detach the impact of a specific EU contribution from similar measures by other countries and international organisations. Using its single market as an incentive is often a substitute for deploying sanctions. As described in Ian Manners’ concept of a Normative Power Europe, it is the EU’s different identity (derived from its history and governance) that leads it to seek consensus and convince rather than impose.

 

Shaming and pressure only work if domestic leaders are receptive to such input. The EU has similar mechanisms relating to human rights and trade, including a ‘human rights clause’ as an essential part of trade deals which can result in the suspension of the whole agreement. Such clauses have not yet been invoked, although the EU also has a Generalised System of Preferences+ (GSP+) scheme which provides additional trade benefits on developing countries and is conditional on ratification and implementation of particular international agreements. So far, the EU has inconsistently used withdrawal threats with varying degrees of success: it succeeded in convincing El Salvador to change its constitution to ratify an International Labour Organisation convention, but could not sufficiently pressure Sri Lanka to address rights violations.

 

In Cambodia, which has duty-free access to EU markets under the Everything But Arms scheme, preferential tariffs aimed at increasing land investment inadvertently also incentivised the state to seize land and evict people against their will to facilitate sales to agro-industrial developers. This led the EU to begin to consider preference removal, which is a long process and has no coercive impact in the meantime if the Cambodian government is not receptive. This is relevant to the current situation, as Bolsonaro has made repeated remarks about developing on indigenous land and integrating the people there (who wish to maintain their current system and culture) into mainstream Brazilian society.

Indeed, the European Parliamentary Research Service notes that some suggest the EU has the most power at the stage of negotiations it has currently reached with Mercosur: “when it can still withdraw the conclusion of the agreement unless the other party improves its commitment to human and labour rights.” It, sensibly, reminds us that the Commission has to weigh up all the potential impacts of a trade agreement as to the increased openness, dialogue, and contacts between the parties that come with economic liberalisation have the potential to lead to additional progress. Indeed, civil society can also benefit from the accompanying environmental and human rights dialogues in EU agreements and obtain more opportunities to mobilise for reform at home. Free trade should not be restricted at all: as part of an effective development package, it is a vital tool for reducing poverty, and the slowing growth in global trade puts that at risk.

 

Member States know that, and value domestic economic growth highly on their priority lists. It is worth looking at the experience of the EU-Canada agreement (CETA). The European Parliament fought tooth and nail for human rights conditionality in CETA, against Canada’s wishes. Despite Canada’s traditionally strong human rights record, the European Parliament insisted on the inclusion of a human rights clause in the deal, which the Canadians initially saw as unnecessary. It has not always pushed as strongly for such clauses but chose to operate tactically as a result of growing civil society and public focus on trade deals. Macron has arguably done the same. He spotted an opportunity to fight with a populist leader on an issue which had erupted into the public consciousness, while tactically avoiding confrontation with French farmers (much to the chagrin of other Member States.)

 

Overall, this situation is a microcosm of wider EU trade policy issues. Market Power Europe could have an exceptional amount of leverage with its partners and with global markets. If it was willing to overcome its squeamishness about hard power, it could successfully push other actors to fall in line with its human rights and environmental policy priorities while maintaining its ever-more-vital role as a defender of global free trade and economic openness. It could consistently and successfully spread European economic and human rights norms to its partners, in a beneficial manner for Europeans and the planet as a whole, but instead only uses this vast potential when the stars align to make it politically convenient for a leader or institution to do so.

 

 

 

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Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

 

Source: kremlin.ru

“[Russian] money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment.”

 

On the 19th of June, the Martens Centre and the Free Russia Foundation held a report launch on the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West. It is a timely publication, with the recent readmission of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s decision to begin judicial proceedings against named individuals over MH17.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to read Misrule of Law without feeling compelled to act. The report is structured in two sections: the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West, and Russian manipulation of Western policy. Reading the first section, it is psychologically easy to forget that this is non-fiction. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything will be fine right up until the point that it is not. Even then we convince ourselves things will return to normal. It is this phenomenon – normalcy bias – that contributes to plane crash survivors sitting in their seats while fire burns around them.

The human mind wants to believe that these detailed discussions of Kremlin interference are tales of intrigue featuring money-laundering and the mafia. They are, however, all too real. The Russian state has systematically manipulated Western institutions and systems in order to protect its interests. A dedicated Spanish prosecutor spent years investigating the Russian mafia. He produced nearly 500 pages of information on suspected criminal activity by Russian officials. He also faced serious personal risk, only for the Kremlin to protect crime lords from extradition and the National Criminal Court to acquit those who were tried for suspected mafia ties. The Court’s reasoning was that there was ‘insufficient proof’ of their investments in Spain being linked to organised crime. Money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment. In reality, the dockyards fell into avoidable bankruptcy due to money laundering – but not before local and federal German governments had obtained loans worth €240million to support the project.

The argument for Russia’s reinstatement to PACE is that the Council of Europe can constrain Russian behaviour. This is particularly hard to square with the Yukos case. Russia cooperated with an independent international arbitral tribunal and disavowed the whole process when it did not go their way. There is no reason to believe the Kremlin would treat civil society related judgments any differently. The former shareholders of Yukos (who were awarded billions of dollars in compensation for the company’s expropriation) attempted to attach Russian non-diplomatic assets abroad, which led to Russian threats against France and Belgium. Both countries reformed their national laws to, essentially, give Putin a veto over whether creditors could seize Russian property on their territories.

What makes the report so compelling is that these are not even its most concerning cases. Russian front organisation ‘think tanks’ participate in promoting the Kremlin’s narrative abroad. It is well-known that Russia Today and Sputnik are two of the chief producers of disinformation. Misrule of Law’s contribution is to warn its audience that Russian links to populist governments in Europe have reached incredibly worrying levels. Hungary, in particular, has seen its backsliding on democracy and the rule of law accompanied by extensive rapprochement with Russia. It appears to keep the EU/NATO line, but maintains strong bilateral relations with Russia. They jointly identified which GRU officer the Hungarians could expel to be seen to act after the Skripal attack. Italy and Austria retain stronger checks and balances that have prevented them from going that far down the same path, but the seriousness of compromised security and home affairs agencies in EU and/or NATO member states cannot be overstated.

To select a final, particularly worrying trend in relation to the Skripal case: “Whitehall observed a 4,000 percent uptick in pro-Russian propaganda since the abortive assassination, most of it coming from unmanned algorithms or ‘bots’, although other prominent peddlers of disinformation were all-too-real people who’d previously rushed to [the] Kremlin’s defense on Syrian chemical weapons use or MH17 or the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers.” [Misrule of Law, p100]. In other words, the extent of Russian manipulation of the Western debate is such that ordinary people are willing to spread the Kremlin’s narrative: even when it involves accusing the United Kingdom of carrying out the attack to stoke anti-Russian sentiment. Indeed, this echoes the Kremlin’s strategy in the Baltic states to attempt to generate a sense of grievance among ethnic Russians.

That is the key takeaway message from the report. The rights, freedoms and institutions the West holds dear are being used against it by the Kremlin. Not only that, but Western states repeatedly allow it to happen. To revisit the plane crash metaphor, the report’s authors are the flight crew shouting at frozen passengers to get up and act to save themselves. The PACE vote is an example of exactly what not to do. It is not impossible to counteract the Kremlin’s actions, but recognition of the issue is only the first step. It requires continual and repeated commitment to enforcing sanctions and the rule of law. Most importantly, it requires recognition that we can only protect and promote European values if we are willing to stand up for them even when it is politically and financially inconvenient.

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