Viviane Reding, the European commissioner on techie stuff, has given a very interesting speech to a plenary session of the European Parliament, in which she discussed how best to get European companies to avoid helping repressive regimes censor their people.
It's an extremely thorny problem, and certainly not one for which Reding has a ready solution. From her speech:
The European Union has become a major player on the world stage and is a major trade partner for many countries in the world. This implies that we conclude agreements, and that we have bilateral or multilateral meetings with our partners. I believe that every one of these opportunities must be used by the European Commission and by the EU Presidency to promote freedom of speech and fight against censorship. In addition, we must ensure that nothing in the agreements we negotiate with third countries, including its bilateral trade agreement, could be used to constrain or limit in any way the freedom of speech.
That bit's relatively easy - only relatively, though. Here's the tricky part - three years ago, the European Commision called for a tech company code of conduct to stop such companies "helping repressive regimes to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet"...
After almost three years, no initiative has been taken by our companies. Even if, indubitably – and unfortunately for Europe's economy – we don't have big European search engines present worldwide, there are European providers of internet related technologies and I expect from these companies to finally take an initiative. I am ready to give a helping hand to kick it off.
And what is that helping hand? Hard to say. Reding is not convinced that legislation is the key, because that could "put European companies in an invidious position where their choice appears to be to break the law or leave the market to more unscrupulous operators".
Instead, she says, "our goal should be to find ways to allow operators and service providers to respect human rights without doing either".
How? That's kinda where she goes "thank you, you've been a wonderful audience". Can't blame her for that - I'm just glad she rekindled the subject at all. But what is the answer? How do we stop the Yahoos and Googles of this world - neither European companies, I know, but that's not the point - from cosying up to dictators and nasty plutocracies?
I don't know.