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Report on CIS' Workshop at the IGF:'An Evidence Based Framework for Intermediary Liability'

An evidence based framework for intermediary liability' was organised to present evidence and discuss ongoing research on the changing definition, function and responsibilities of intermediaries across jurisdictions.

The discussion from the workshop will contribute to a comprehensible framework for liability, consistent with the capacity of the intermediary and with international human-rights standards.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (USA), Article 19 (UK) and Centre for Internet and Society (India) have come together towards the development of best practices and principles related to the regulation of online content through intermediaries. The nine principles are: Transparency, Consistency, Clarity, Mindful Community Policy Making, Necessity and Proportionality in Content Restrictions, Privacy, Access to Remedy, Accountability, and Due Process in both Legal and Private Enforcement. The workshop discussion will contribute to a comprehensible framework for liability that is consistent with the capacity of the intermediary and with international human-rights standards. The session was hosted by Centre for Internet and Society (India) and Centre for Internet and Society, Stanford (USA) and attended by 7 speakers and 40 participants.

Jeremy Malcolm, Senior Global Policy Analyst EFF kicked off the workshop highlighting the need to develop a liability framework for intermediaries that is derived out of an understanding of their different functions, their role within the economy and their impact on human rights. He went on to structure the discussion which would follow to focus on ongoing projects and examples that highlight central issues related to gathering and presenting evidence to inform the policy space.

Martin Husovec from the International Max Planck Research School for Competition and Innovation, began his presentation, tracking the development of safe harbour frameworks within social contract theory. Opining that safe harbour was created as a balancing mechanism between a return of investments of the right holders and public interest for Internet as a public space, he introduced emerging claims that technological advancement have altered this equilibrium. Citing injunctions and private lawsuits as instruments, often used against law abiding intermediaries, he pointed to the problem within existing liability frameoworks, where even intermediaries, who diligently deal with illegitimate content on their services, can be still subject to a forced cooperation to the benefit of right holders. He added that for liability frameworks to be effective, they must keep pace with advances in technology and are fair to right holders and the public interest.

He also pointed that in any liability framework because the ‘law’ that prescribes an interference, must be always sufficiently clear and foreseeable, as to both the meaning and nature of the applicable measures, so it sufficiently outlines the scope and manner of exercise of the power of interference in the exercise of the rights guaranteed. He illustrated this with the example of the German Federal Supreme Court attempts with Wi-Fi policy-making in 2010. He also raised issues of costs of uncertainty in seeking courts as the only means to balance rights as they often, do not have the necessary information. Similarly, society also does not benefit from open ended accountability of intermediaries and called for a balanced approach to regulation.

The need for consistency in liability regimes across jurisdictions, was raised by Giancarlo Frosio, Intermediary Liability Fellow at Stanford's Centre for Internet and Society. He introduced the World Intermediary Liability Map, a project mapping legislation and case law across 70 countries towards creating a repository of information that informs policymaking and helps create accountability. Highlighting key takeaways from his research, he stressed the necessity of having clear definitions in the field of intermediary liability and the need to develop taxonomy of issues to deepen our understanding of the issues at stake towards an understanding of type of liability appropriate for a particular jurisdiction.

Nicolo Zingales, Assistant Professor of Law at Tilburg University highlighted the need for due process and safeguards for human rights and called for more user involvement in systems that are in place in different countries to respond to requests of takedown. Presenting his research findings, he pointed to the imbalance in the way notice and takedown regimes are structured, where content is taken down presumptively, but the possibility of restoring user content is provided only at a subsequent stage or not at all in many cases. He cited several examples of enhancing user participation in liability mechanisms including notice and notice, strict litigation sanction inferring the knowledge that the content might have been legal and shifting the presumption in favor of the users and the reverse notice and takedown procedure. He also raised the important question, if multistakeholder cooperation is sufficient or adequate to enable the users to have a say and enter as part of the social construct in this space? Reminding the participants of the failure of the multistakeholder agreement process regarding the cost for the filters in the UK, that would be imposed according to judicial procedure, he called for strengthening our efforts to enable users to get more involved in protecting their rights online.

Gabrielle Guillemin from Article 19 presented her research on the types of intermediaries and models of liability in place across jurisdictions. Pointing to the problems associated with intermediaries having to monitor content and determine legality of content, she called for procedural safeguards and stressed the need to place the dispute back in the hands of users and content owners and the person who has written the content rather than the intermediary. She goes on to provide some useful and practically-grounded solutions to strengthen existing takedown mechanisms including, adding details to the notices, introducing fees in order to extend the number of claims that are made and defining procedure regards criminal content.

Elonnai Hickok introduced CIS' research to the UNESCO report Fostering Freedom Online: the Role of Internet Intermediaries, comparing a range of liability models in different stages of development and provisions across jurisdictions. She argued for a liability framework that tackles procedural and regulatory uncertainty, lack of due process, lack of remedy and varying content criteria.

Francisco Vera, Advocacy Director, Derechos Digitales from Chile raised issues related to mindful community policy-making expounding on Chile's implementation of intermediary liability obligation with the USA, the introduction of judicial oversight under Chilean legislation which led to US objection to Chile on grounds of not fulfilling their standards in terms of Internet property protection. He highlighted the tensions that arise in balancing the needs of the multiple communities and interests engaged over common resources and stressed the need for evidence in policy-making to balance the needs of rights holders and public interest. He stressed the need for evidence to inform policy-making and ensure it keeps pace with technological developments citing the example of the ongoing Transpacific Partnership Agreement negotiations that call for exporting provisions DMCA provisions to 11 countries even though there is no evidence of the success of the system for public interest. He concluded by cautioning against the development of frameworks that are or have the potential to be used as anti-competitive mechanisms that curtail innovation and therby do not serve public interest.

Malcolm Hutty associated with the European Internet Service Providers Association, Chair of the Intermediary Reliability Committee and London Internet Exchange brought in the intermediaries' perspective into the discussion. He argued for challenging the link between liability and forced cooperation, understated the problems arising from distinction without a difference and incentives built in within existing regimes. He raised issues arising from the expectancy on the part of those engaged in pre-emptive regulation of unwanted or undesirable content for intermediaries to automate content. Pointing to the increasing impact of intermediaries in our lives he underscored how exposing vast areas of people's lives to regulatory enforce, which enhances power of the state to implement public policy in the public interest and expect it to be executed, can have both positive and negative implications on issues such as privacy and freedom of expression.

He called out practices in regulatory regimes that focus on one size fits all solutions such as seeking automating filters on a massive scale and instead called for context and content specific solutions, that factor the commercial imperatives of intermediaries. He also addressed the economic consequences of liability frameworks to the industry including cost effectiveness of balancing rights, barriers to investments that arise in heavily regulated or new types of online services that are likely to be the targeted for specific enforcement measures and the long term costs of adapting old enforcement mechanisms that apply, while networks need to be updated to extend services to users.

The workshop presented evidence of a variety of approaches and the issues that arise in applying those approaches to impose liability on intermediaries. Two choices emerged towards developing frameworks for enforcing responsibility on intermediaries. We could either rely on a traditional approach, essentially court-based and off-line mechanisms for regulating behaviour and disputes. The downside of this is it will be slow and costly to the public purse. In particular, we will lose a great deal of the opportunity to extend regulation much more deeply into people's lives so as to implement the public interest.

Alternatively, we could rely on intermediaries to develop and automate systems to control our online behaviour. While this approach does not suffer from efficiency problems of the earlier approach it does lack, both in terms of hindering the developments of the Information Society, and potentially yielding up many of the traditionally expected protections under a free and liberal society. The right approach lies somewhere in the middle and development of International Principles for Intermediary Liability, announced at the end of the workshop, is a step closer to the developing a balanced framework for liability.

See the transcript on IGF website.