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Intermediaries

Updates

15 Jan 2017

The British Parliament is planning to launch an inquiry into fake news. Sessions with executives at Facebook, Google and Twitter are expected to be planned by late spring or early summer. According to Damian Collins, who chairs the cross-party committee leading the inquiry, social media companies 'have a responsibility to ensure their platforms are not being used to spread malicious content.'

Facebook has announced to start testing its fake news filtering tools in Germany. The tools would allow Facebook's users to flag news stories as fake, and these allegations will then be verified by a third-party fact checker. If the story is verified as fake news, Facebook will label it as 'disputed' and will de-prioritise it in its news feed algorithm.

21 Dec 2016

The families of some of the victims of the shooting in the Orlando Pulse nightclub in June 2016 are suing Google, Twitter, and Facebook, as these companies are accused of having a role in the radicalisation of the shooter. According to the lawsuit, 'without...Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible'. The lawsuit claim that the tech companies even 'profit from ISIS postings through advertising revenue'. Earlier this year, a similar lawsuit was launched in response to the 2015 Paris attacks. This case is still pending.

 

18 Nov 2016

The new surveillance law passed in the UK brings expansion of surveillance powers for the government. According to the new law, the Internet Service Providers will be required to store the browsing histories of all the Internet users for one year and make them available upon the request by the court, companies providing online services will be required to decrypt user data on demand, while security services will be allowed to hack into computers and devices of citizens - though journalists and medical workers will remain protected from this. According to ZDNet, Digital rights organisations have raised serious concerns about the enacted law - dubbed "snooper charter" - characterizing it as terrifying and dangerous. The draft law was already marked as disproportionate by UN rapporteur on privacy Joseph A. Cannataci in his report on the state of privacy in 2016.

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Intermediaries play a vital role in ensuring Internet functionality. In several Internet governance areas, such as copyright infringement and spam, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are considered key online intermediaries. In other areas, such as defamation and the so-called right to be forgotten, the responsibility extends to hosts of online content and search engines.

ISPs main involvement is at a national level in dealing with government and legal authorities, and they are often the most direct way for governments to enforce legal rules online. At a global level, some ISPs, particularly from the USA and Europe, have been active in the WSIS/WGIG/IGF processes individually and through national and regional or sector-specific business organisations such as the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), and others. Various regional ISP associations have been set up worldwide.

Hosts of online content and search engines typically operate as conduits for content, or bridges between content and Internet users. Although headquartered in one country (some having regional headquarters), their reach and user-base is likely to be global, and as a consequence, intermediaries are often exposed to jurisdiction in multiple countries.

 

Intermediary liability is often discussed at IGF meetings and in other fora. The OECD includes the role of intermediaries among its 14 principles for Internet policy-making (‘Limit Internet intermediary liability’), whereas the extent of intermediary liability is often the subject of court judgments (such as the Delfi case).

The following will discuss the role and responsibility of ISPs and hosts with regards to various issues.

Copyright infringement

One of the main issues is intermediary liability for copyright infringement. The international enforcement mechanisms in the field of intellectual property have been further strengthened by making ISPs liable for hosting materials in breach of copyright, if the material is not removed upon notification of infringement. This has made the previously vague IPR regime directly enforceable in the field of the Internet.

The approach taken by the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the EU directives is to exempt the service provider from liability for the information merely transmitted or stored at the direction of the users, and demand that the service provider act upon a notice-and-take-down procedure. This solution provides some comfort to ISPs as they are safe from legal sanctions, but also potentially transforms them into content judges and only partially solves the problem, since the contested content may be posted on another website, hosted by another ISP.

Child online protection

As with all other stakeholders involved in protecting children online, ISPs and hosts are instrumental in filtering certain types of illegal content (most notably, child sexual abuse images) as soon as they become aware of it. There are generally two main processes leading to the removal of illegal content:

  1. Via notice-and-take-down measures, which are typically the first line of defence. As soon as providers, such as ISPs, domain registrars, and web hosts are alerted that their services being used to host such content, many go on to remove it or close down the user’s account, within a short period of time.
  2. Via hotline reporting, through which ISPs can be notified of illegal content by its customers, members of the public, law enforcement, or hotline organisations. ISPs generally work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to ensure that the content is verified, and that steps are taken to identify and locate the criminals.

Other technical options may help prevent illegal content from being accessed. For example, a number of intermediaries around the world, including ISPs and search engines, restrict access to lists of URLs confirmed to contain illegal content.

In the above cases, the extent of ISPs' and hosts' liabilities may vary from country to country. In some frameworks, a legal obligation is imposed; in many other cases, ISPs and hosts voluntarily develop and adopt processes to help protect children online.

Spam

ISPs are commonly seen as the primary entities involved with anti-spam initiatives. Usually, ISPs have their own initiatives for reducing spam, either through technical filtering or the introduction of anti-spam policy. The ITU’s report on spam states that ISPs should be liable for spam and proposes an anti-spam code of conduct, which should include two main provisions:

  • An ISP must prohibit its users from spamming.
  • An ISP must not peer with ISPs that do not accept a similar code of conduct.

Content policy

Under growing official pressure, ISPs, hosts and search engines are gradually, albeit reluctantly, becoming involved with content policy. In doing so, they might have to follow two possible routes. The first is to enforce government regulation. The second, based on self-regulation, is for intermediaries to decide on what is appropriate content themselves. This runs the risk of privatising content control, with ISPs taking over governments’ responsibilities.

In recent months, the courts have also imposed rules on intermediaries, most notably with respect to the right to be forgotten, and in respect of comments posted on online portals.

Right to be forgotten

In 2014, following the decision of the Spanish data protection authority to uphold a Spanish citizen’s request for the removal of the links from Google search results, the Court of Justice of the European Union imposed upon search engines the obligation to consider all right-to-be-forgotten requests.

Although many argued that this right represents only a right to be de-listed, the obligation imposed upon search engines – and not only to Google, as claimant in the case Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González – triggered major debates.

Offensive comments posted on news portal

In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed a ruling by the Estonian courts which found the news portal Delfi liable for offensive comments posted on its website. In June 2015, the Grand Chamber of ECHR confirmed the 2013 judgment: the Estonian courts’ decision was justifiable and proportionate, as the comments were extreme and had been posted in reaction to an article published by Delfi on its professionally managed news portal run on a commercial basis. (The judgment does not however concern other online spaces where third-party comments can be disseminated, such as an Internet discussion forum, a bulletin board or a social media platform.)

Each of the topics above are explained in more detail on dedicated sections: copyrightchild safetyspam, and content policy.

Events

Instruments

Judgements

Google Spain SL and Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja González Case - Court of Justice of the European Union (2014)

Recommendations

Other Instruments

Resources

Publications

Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)

Papers

Jurisdiction on the Internet: From Legal Arms Race to Transnational Cooperation (2016)
Encouraging the Participation of the Private Sector and the Media in the Prevention of Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence: Article 17 of the Istanbul Convention (2016) (2016)
Comparative Analysis on National Approaches to the Liability of Internet Intermediaries for Infringement of Copyright and Related Rights (2014)

Reports

One Internet (2016)
2015 In Retrospect (Vol. 4) (2016)
OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2015 (2015)
The Impact of Online Intermediaries on the EU Economy (2013)
Study on the Liability of Internet Intermediaries (2007)

Other resources

Harmonizing Intermediary Immunity for Modern Trade Policy (2014)

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