Digital Rights is cautious towards the current tendency towards self-regulation. Self-regulation is problematic, because it implies privatized censorship where Internet Service Providers restrict the free flow of information according to commercial codes of consumer demand rather than the principles inherent in the rights of expressions. In this sense, the current tendency towards self-regulation (encouraged by the EU Commission) is endangering the protection inherent in the freedom of expression, and might lead to Internet being a less protected public sphere than the physical public sphere.
If for instance all major Internet Service Providers decide to implement common codes of conduct and restrict access to certain kinds of expressions within their domain, this will have a very damaging effect on the possibility to express and access minority views. If such an approach were to be adopted by all providers in a region or a country a de facto censorship would be established.
Therefore Internet Service Providers should not be under any pressure from governments to enforce a certain moral standard on Internet, as this will give Internet Service Providers a role as police authority, which they are not democratically elected for or otherwise mandated to undertake. Seen from a commercial point of view, Internet Service Providers are principally allowed - subject to the contractual agreements with their customers - to decide on the information available through their services, for instance by using filtering systems to block customers' access to certain sites, or by denying certain homepages within their domain. Being commercial actors they are entitled to design the services they want to offer to their customers. Some people would even argue that Internet Service Providers like TV-stations have a responsibility to carry out a certain censorship.
However, parallels to traditional media are misleading. Broadcasting media like radio and television can be held responsible for the content they provide, because they control the information they transmit to the recipients. In contrast Internet Service Providers only provide their clients with a technical tool to communicate, more similar to a telephone line. Hence Internet Service Providers do not provide the information but merely the means to communicate, and therefore should not be held responsible for the content they host or carry.
Furthermore, certain core Internet Service Providers (the backbone Providers) should be under an obligation not to carry out self-regulation at all. In the case of the backbone Providers, including the major search engines, their role is so fundamental to the functioning of, and the diversity of content on, Internet that the introduction of self-regulation would deprive Internet of its function as a new public sphere.
Digital Rights believe, that time has come for states to take on their responsibility and strengthen the protection of online freedom of expression, in order to provide for Internet the same level of protection, which applies to rights of expression in the physical world.