Regulating Cyberspace: Can Online Ever Equal Offline?

Chris Reed, Online and Offline Equivalence: Aspiration and Achievement, 18 Int'l J. L. Law & Info. Tech. 248. Lilian Edwards Works of pure theory in Anglophone European internet law scholarship are fairly rare, and those that exist often come from scholars whose background is in a field other than traditional law, e.g. sociology, politics or criminology. While some of this work is excellent, it may lack a full understanding both of the nuances of legal analysis and the realities of commercial legal culture. For all these reasons, it is to be warmly welcomed that in what one might call the second stage of his distinguished career, Chris Reed, one of Europe's leading researchers into the more commercial and practical aspects of internet law, has decided to turn his years of experience in helping both draft and critique European internet and e-commerce laws towards theorising how to regulate for the on-line world, in the form of a series of pieces which so far include Taking Sides on Net Neutrality, The Law of Unintended Consequences-embedded models in IT regulation and more recently, How to Make Bad Law: Lessons from Cyberspace. The latest of these pieces (which are destined eventually to form a book on regulation, I believe)1 appeared in late 2010 and takes on the near cliché of internet law that "what is legal offline should also be legal online," or more formally, the principle of equivalence. While it is something of a kneejerk assumption in many domains, notably freedom of speech, that this approach is axiomatically mandatory, Reed dissects the desirability, applicability and most interestingly perhaps, the failures of the principle in the context of the history of (mainly European) internet regulation. Reed defines equivalence as a starting point as "an approach in which all laws and regulations should, so far as possible, be equivalent online and offline. In other words, the same legal principles should regulate an online technology activity as those which applied to the equivalent offline technology activity." Reed's first point is that this should not be confused with the similarly-popular notion of technology neutrality. "Technology neutrality addresses the choice between the available substantive rules which could be used to implement … legal principles," while equivalence, in his view, is about choosing those legal principles for regulating the online world in the first place. Equivalence therefore takes precedence in the regulatory toolkit and is arguably the more important issue to get right. Reed also muses as to whether a distinction is needed between "technology indifference"-which is an "attempt … to define a rule in such a way that it applies equally well to the activity whatever technology is used to undertake it" and a concept he does not name but I will call technology non-discrimination which is "a legislative aim that the rules should not discriminate between technologies and should continue to apply effectively even if new technologies are developed." A good example of problematic regulation which might have been elucidated by applying these concepts lies in the recent controversial redrafting of the part of the EU Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive dealing with cookies (art 5(3)), where despite frequent claims to technology-neutrality the results have been nothing of the kind either initially or after reform. Continue reading "Regulating Cyberspace: Can Online Ever Equal Offline?"

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