Internet freedom as a civil right
The idea that the political party that introduced this country to the internet revolution could seek to restrict your access to the internet is simply unbelievable. So when, last Saturday, the Prime Minister announced his intention to enshrine internet freedom as a civil right he was not just setting the record straight. He was also elevating the recent Acta debate to a whole new level.
He gets my full congratulations.
The Prime Minister announced that the government would introduce new civil rights into our law, namely: the right to unrestricted access to the internet, the right to information and freedom of expression on the internet and the right to decide what information to share on the internet.
This announcement puts paid, once and for all, to any idea that, by signing Acta, the government wants to restrict access to or use of the internet or breach privacy. I have already written in this column about Acta, explaining that this treaty seeks to strengthen the fight against counterfeiting and piracy, which threaten jobs in the manufacturing industry and in the ICT sector.
In Malta, we have thousands of workers whose livelihood depends on these sectors. Those who are dead set against Acta – presumably without having read the text – have some explaining to do to these Maltese workers whose job is under constant threat from false products and from pirating. Just as they have some explaining to do to consumers who are victims of fake and substandard products.
But in my column I also acknowledged that serious complaints have been made in the sense that this agreement might restrict internet freedom. And I stated that “I, for one, would vote against Acta if these concerns proved valid”.
That was two weeks ago, before the Acta debate was turned by Labour into a partisan debate . This is unfortunate but not surprising given Labour’s penchant for opportunism.
The Nationalist Partty and our party in Europe, the EPP, were slated in the pro-Acta camp when, in fact, we are open-minded on the matter, ready to listen and debate. Indeed, no debate has yet started in the European Parliament, let alone a vote taken.
There is still time to do so and a final vote is not expected before June this year. So whether Acta will be adopted is still to be seen.
The agreement must also go through ratification in all EU countries and it is right that each national Parliament, not least our own, takes its time to adopt its position.
If the European Parliament votes against it, Acta will be dead in its tracks. The same might happen if any of the EU countries votes against it in the national Parliament, although the legal implications here are still not clear.
But, with his announcement, the Prime Minister has rightly focused the debate on the real issue. If the real issue is that internet freedom might be restricted, then the answer is that, far from being restricted, internet freedom should be considered as a civil right.
With this move, our country will obviate such concerns because it will give us a legal safeguard that no law or practice, Acta included, would be valid in Malta if it impinges on internet freedom. That is a legal safeguard as clear as they come.
Access to the internet is already recognised as a right in a growing number of countries and there have been moves – unsuccessful, so far – to enshrine it as a right in international law at the level of the United Nations.
The Prime Minister has now turned a challenge into an opportunity by taking the first steps towards an innovative legislation that spells out internet rights.
I hope that this civil right will not just form part of our laws but also of our Constitution. After all, the internet has changed our life and our world – from our economic to our social sectors. Thousands of jobs in our country already depend on it. It is, therefore, fitting that it should be legally protected in the highest law of the land. I also hope that the law would delve into other aspects affected by the internet, from privacy to data protection and the prevention of criminal abuse of the internet.
Only recently, the European Parliament adopted a law that provides for criminal sanctions against the sexual exploitation of children through the internet. And, just last month, the European Commission presented two new proposals to update EU laws on data protection.
Unlike those who jumped on the bandwagon one week ago, I follow these developments closely because I have been a member of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament for five years, leading my political group in it for two and a half years.
And I will also take the Prime Minister’s proposal with me to Brussels and will present it to the EPP.
In a knee-jerk reaction to the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Labour leader questioned whether the government has a majority to push this law through Parliament. I hope that, on deeper reflection, he will come up with a more introspective response. For logic dictates that if he truly means what he says about Acta, then he should wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister’s proposal and not question whether the government has a majority for it. That would provide the Bill with unanimity. As it should.
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.