The past of the internet has caught up with its acrimonious present. The European Court of Justice has decreed that Facebook must comply globally with a takedown order issued by the national court of any of the 28 member-nations of the European Union. All because an Austrian politician was called a “corrupt oaf” online, and her national court agreed that it amounted to vilification. Europe sees itself at the cutting edge of internet regulation, and is impatient with America’s inability or unwillingness to rein in the Silicon giants based on its soil. While Facebook is believed to have facilitated illegal intervention in politics in the US and UK, talk of breaking it up remains just that. But nothing can justify another nation or group of nations pinning on the badge of internet supercop. Such a projection of the laws of one country onto the world has not been seen since colonial times.
Concerns are being raised about the growing purview of European law online, but the ruling also sets a precedent for other nations, which are developing their own privacy and hate speech laws. Wait till a country like India, notoriously thin-skinned and a champion in filing takedown requests, starts wondering why Europe should have all the fun. Or consider a nation like Pakistan, where speech online is governed by blasphemy law. Imagine the consequences for the global conversation if local sensitivities were projected worldwide. Besides, as national laws clash, international disputes would be inevitable. The ruling of the European Court of Justice — which, incidentally, cannot be appealed — raises uncomfortable questions. It will only cause alarums, excursions and fulminations, and its only victim would be the freedom of speech.
The ruling has foregrounded a paradox that has been ignored for too long. The internet was originally spelled with a capital I, to indicate that it is a separate territory, abstracted from geography and its jurisdictions. But for decades, national laws have been applied domestically to digital communications, and issues are settled bilaterally between governments and courts on the one hand and providers or platforms on the other. Now, the European ruling against Facebook has crossed the line, projecting the laws of the bloc internationally. It calls attention to the need for regulation commonly agreed upon by nations, like the law of the high seas, and a multilateral mechanism or body to oversee regulation globally.