The European Parliament recently voted on a bill titled "Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in the EU." A laudable goal, for sure -- but activists characterized the bill as a Trojan horse with chilling effects on free speech and opinion. The response from the European Parliament left much to be desired in terms of respect for democracy and voters.
The bill looked great on the surface -- almost idealistic -- but a closer inspection revealed things that went beyond the appropriate. For instance, the bill called for a blanket ban on any and all forms of pornography -- arguably including anything on the Internet -- as well as concrete measures to enforce the ban.
Regardless of whether one thinks pornography has a place in society or should be a protected form of expression, the bill encompassed far more than most would term "porn." The language was so vague, and so broad, that it could even criminalize text messages with an ever-so-slightly sexual overtone between husbands and wives. Furthermore, it called for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to police ordinary people's communications and for dissent against the ban to be criminalized, with "effective sanctions" the penalty for opposition. The term "effective sanctions" usually means fines or jail.
Upon realizing the legislative impact of what had initially been a laudable goal, activists' cries of a Trojan horse didn't seem so far off the mark. Had a bill that criminalized dissent really been voted through all committees and made it as far as the floor of the European Parliament?
Several people in parliament discarded the bill and the discussions of it as "not important" because it wasn't the final vote in the legislative process, and at this stage was non-binding. Free-speech activists started contacting their representatives en masse though. The message wasn't so much "don't take away our porn!" as "you cannot possibly think this bill, as it is written, is compatible with any kind of fundamental rights." About 250,000 email messages were sent to the European Parliament on the morning of March 7.
Then, something odd happened. Around lunchtime on March 7, the email messages stopped coming into parliament, despite still being sent by individual activists -- hand-typed, individual messages of concern. It turned out that some Members of European Parliament (MEPs) -- to this day, it remains unclear just who -- had complained to technical staff about the amount of constituents seeking contact with their representative on a current issue, and succeeded in having technical staff classify the messages as spam, so they never got through.
The notion that one or a few MEPs could use parliamentary technical staff and infrastructure to prevent constituents from contacting any part of parliament on a current issue is jaw-dropping. Not just shutting themselves off, but shutting their colleagues off as well -- shutting off the entire parliament off from its constituents' opinions.
Swedish media estimated that one million e-mails were prevented from reaching their representatives.
The bill was finally voted through on March 12, but not before the parts that criminalized dissent and turned ISPs into communications police had been taken out. There were still calls for enforcing a blanket ban on pornography, but nothing likely to have a real political effect.
It is also impossible for people to hold their politicians accountable on this issue, as the European Parliament did not use a "roll call vote," meaning there is no record of how individuals voted. The idea that a vote can be deliberately constructed in a way that prevents office-holder accountability is astounding.
If activists hadn't made a lot of noise on the matter, the parts of the bill that criminalized dissent and turned ISPs into morals police would quite possibly have passed too. I can't help feeling a very bitter aftertaste from the European Parliament's demonstration of how little it cares about the people it represents -- deleting one million attempts by constituents to contact Members of European Parliament, and then declining to create any kind of voting record.