- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

Old Europe has come out against the new economy. Last week, the Council of Europe (COE) agreed to a program to control content on the Internet. The council — an institution that spends its $200 million-a-year budget concocting new regulatory ideas to recommend to its 45 member-states — officially endorsed a law that would force a “right of reply” on Internet news sites. If enacted, this would mean that any online outlet that mentions any name or organization would have to then provide space to that individual or group to respond. Predictably enough, the European press has heralded the new Internet controls as being in support of free speech. You see, according to European scribblers, the council is trying to mandate that everyone be able to voice their opinions anywhere. We view it differently.

Right of reply rules take control of content away from publishers and hand it to government. In black-and-white terms, regulations control what, where, when and for how long an outlet can publish certain information — in this case, replies. Under guidelines currently supported by the COE, opponents of a site’s material could hijack the outlet by flooding it with responses holding the counterpoint. The government reach is long, as proposed regulations would encompass all aspects of electronic media, including news and opinion sites, blogs and even chat lines. Earlier draft proposals had limited the regulation to “professional” sites, but COE bureaucrats overruled that as being too loose, or, perhaps more to the point, too free.

Individual provisions of the COE proposal dictate the exact details of an opponent’s so-called reply right. For example, as the plan states: “The reply should be made publicly available in a prominent place for a period of time at least equal to the period of time during which the contested information was publicly available, but, in any case, no less than 24 hours.” If a site keeps stories archived, it must keep the replies available in perpetuity as well. The COE also is against any limits on lengths of responses, meaning disgruntled parties or mischief-makers could dominate a topic on someone else’s platform. All these concessions to “the other side” add up to significant handling duties for anyone offering an opinion on the Internet.

The new regulations are not the only trouble the Euros have in mind for the worldwide Web. They also have plans to tax it. Last month, the European Union approved a COE recommendation to tax sales over the Internet at a rate of between 15 and 25 percent. This tax would not only apply to online sales through e-stores such as Amazon.com and EBay but also to services and downloaded material, such as music and software. On Tuesday, Sen. George Allen, chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee, will hold hearings looking into the effects the European tax could have on U.S. businesses.

Recent limits on Internet communication across the pond are hardly surprising. Europeans have an age-old soft spot for censorship. In deliberations to draft a governing document for a pan-European democracy, framers frequently have referred to the U.S. Constitution as a model. Unfortunately, they don’t seem poised to copy the First Amendment.

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