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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Vive la liberté en ligne! French Court Recognizes Internet as Fundamental Right

Hat tip to Progressive on the Prairie!

Here in America, broadcast television has disappeared from the western shore of Lake Herman. In January, we received five channels, maybe seven if the planets aligned. The signal degraded with the warm weather, and now, with the analog-to-digital switchover finally complete, our federally subsidized converter box finds not one usable signal in the air. (Advertisers, if you want the Lake Herman demographic, call KJAM... or Hulu.)

As TV dies, the French are declaring the Internet a fundamental right. Just last month, le Parlement français passed legislation to crack down on online piracy of music and video: les citoyens caught downloading illegal content would have received three e-mail warnings before having their Internet access cancelled for a year. (Reminds me of the 1980s Twilight Zone episode where a man convicted of "coldness" is sentenced to one year of invisibility, where no one is allowed to communicate with him.) President Nicolas Sarkozy thought this legislation was a great idea, as did his chanteuse wife Carla Bruni, whose pop albums would have been among the numerous copyrighted works protected. Sarkozy's darned Socialist opponents appealed, saying the law gave too much power to France's new Internet policing agency, the HADOPI.

The Socialists won. The Constitutional Council, France's highest court, ruled last week that the legislation went too far. Citing Article 11 of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, the court held that Internet access is now an essential means for supporting the "free communication of thoughts and opinions." The Internet is vital to participation in democratic life. If you want to take that away from someone, you've got to prove your case in court, not just issue an arbitrary ruling from some administrative body like HADOPI.

As explained in the Times Online and Ars Technica, the court additionally found that HADOPI's Internet surveillance authority breached individual privacy rights. It also violated the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" by cutting off pirates without allowing them a chance to defend themselves (or at least brandish their cutlasses). Pirates could get a hearing, but they would have the burden of proof to show they hadn't been naughty (rather like IRS audits).

I know the declaration of the French court (which agrees with votes by the European Parliament) isn't binding here in the New World where we invented the Internet. But it poses a fascinating political question: Do you and I have a right to this technological service? Applying the reasoning of le Conseil Constitutionnel, does the state have an obligation to provide Internet access to all communities? And can any other media—print, radio, television—make a similar claim to be so fundamental to our democratic life that only a judge can take it away?

I'll miss television, but I don't plan to make a federal case out of it. Everything worth watching is on either YouTube, Hulu, C-SPAN, or Netflix. And when it comes to la vie démocratique, TV is just too passive, too one-way. The Internet is a much better tool not just for informing citizens but in opening the door for them to inform each other (what do you think we're doing here on the Madville Times?) and participate in democracy in ways that were impossible twenty years ago.

libre, as in freedom, not gratuit, as in without cost.

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