In 2005, Peter Mahnke, a resident of the English town of St. Margaret's, Middlesex, set up a community website. For the past seven years, he and a handful of local volunteers have been publishing regular updates about local events, parks, new businesses, weather, and train schedules. All G-rated and uncontroversial.
Yet in early March, for reasons that remain unclear, the St. Margaret's website was blocked throughout Britain on mobile Internet services offered by Orange (a subsidiary of France Telecom) and T-mobile (owned by Deutsche Telecom). The site had fallen victim to a nationwide child-protection system run by the mobile companies themselves. Somehow the system, which activists say is rife with errors, had classified the site as "adult" content, causing it to be blocked on all phones by default.
The accidental censorship of the St. Margaret's community website highlights a larger reality of the Internet age: The digital networks and platforms we depend upon for all aspects of our lives -- including the civic and political -- are for the most part designed, owned, operated, and governed by the private sector. Internet and mobile services empower us to organize and communicate in exciting new ways, and indeed have been politically transformative in democracies and dictatorships alike. But the connectivity they provide has also created tough new problems for parents, law enforcement, and anybody wanting to protect their intellectual property. Democratically elected governments face political pressure from a range of vocal and powerful constituencies to take urgent action to protect children, property, and reputations. Increasingly, however, the job of policing the Internet is falling to private intermediaries -- companies that are under little or no legal obligation to uphold citizens' rights. In effect, they end up acting simultaneously as digital police, judge, jury, and executioner.
European governments may not have intended to create a "privatized police state," but that is what digital rights activists in Europe warn is happening, due to growing government pressure on companies to police themselves. As Joe McNamee, director of the Brussels-based nonprofit European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI), puts it, "We are sleepwalking further and further along a road on which we've decided that our right to communication and privacy shall be put in the hands of arbitrary decisions of private companies."