With the new series of South Park in full swing I was fondly remembering the South Park movie from 1999, and it’s famous “Blame Canada” refrain, during which there is the line “It’s not even a real country anyway”. Being in my solidly ignorant of just how idiotic North America can actually be while growing up in Europe phase I assumed this was an invention of South Park, as opposed to being a reference to what Lucien Bouchard came out with in 1996 when trying to oppose partition of Quebec. This naivety also extended to Weight Gain 4000 (how I laughed) and less hilariously NAMBLA, which I guess we all did wish was a joke.
Hidden here is the true objection to Quebec separatism, and that is it’s arguing about a notion of a country that may have made sense a hundred years ago but no longer does. That is, it’s proving increasingly difficult for existing countries to effectively regulate on different things as it stands. Without large blocs such as the EU or the US any attempt at enforcement falls apart, and while within these areas things are messy it’s when you get stuck between them that things go to hell.
The big way this is manifesting itself is privacy problems, and how different countries want to insist everyone on the Internet happens to obey the law as they choose to implement and interpret it.
Probably the best case here are Microsoft in Ireland. Microsoft are currently attempting to resist a search warrant issued by the FBI for data held by a non-US based customer using Microsoft’s services hosted in Ireland. Thus the US are claiming jurisdiction over all of Microsoft’s activities, internationally. Except, of course, Microsoft would be violating EU privacy laws in allowing it.
For this reason, among others, Google’s head lawyer David Drummond this week pushed US lawmakers to allow US privacy laws to extend to cover EU citizens. Google have been having their own fun in France this week, where the French have decided that the EU’s “Right to be forgotten” must apply to Google’s operation globally, and not merely their French subsidiary, which will be fined every day of non-compliance. This neatly mirrors the US in Ireland situation, as once more a country is attempting to impose their law beyond their borders.
Notice that David Drummond would prefer US laws to extend over EU citizens, but made no mention of the idea that US citizens could or should benefit from EU law, let alone that French idea. It’s also conspicuous that there appears to be little concern about those outside of the US or EU.
Then there’s the UK with its notorious libel laws leading to the amazing situation that you can’t mention in newspapers what you can read about on Twitter, much to the frustration of many journalists.
All this adds up to a giant “Do as I say, not as I do” mess, especially as regards foreign policy. Laws in other countries that we don’t like are to be ignored, while we expect those other countries to adopt our way of doing things. This just isn’t sustainable, at all.
Ultimately, while we may not like the laws another country expects to operate with on the net we need to respect their right to make and enforce those laws, or we cannot expect reciprocation. Companies must be made to comply with local laws, however, for doing so the countries they are head-quartered in must respect that they cannot project their laws through foreign subsidiaries of those companies without forming de facto trade embargoes. Either embargo a foreign country or allow your firms to operate there under local laws, but limbo is not acceptable. Failing in this will merely result in the complete erosion of the sovereignty of nation states, leaving us at the mercy of whatever bureaucrat lands on top of the pile.