The EU has in recent years used trade agreements as a venue for promotion of human rights, notably freedom of speech. Yet, as trade negotiators seek to wrap up trade negotiations on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), the EU seems to have abandoned its promotion of freedom of expression.
The European Union (EU) has repeatedly heralded trade agreements as an opportunity to promote human rights. The EU’s recent “Trade For All” strategy reiterated that: “The EU Treaties demand that the EU promote its values … and respect for human rights, around the world.”
In the Internet era, one of the most frequently exercised human rights is free expression. But exercising this right requires online services. Within the EU, the e-Commerce Directive has for over fifteen years afforded internet intermediaries strong protection from liability for third party content and communications. This model works because intermediaries can host interactions without being held liable for the vast amounts of user content generated during these interactions. The alternative model, which is present in several countries that lack the EU’s human rights tradition, is to force intermediaries to determine what is or is not lawful on their own without notice — with obvious risks to over-takedown, online censorship, and user privacy. Europe’s safeguards for intermediaries have enabled a flourishing European internet economy and promoted users’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and privacy, while enabling the launch of many European telecommunications and content services.