Searching for an Internet Freedom Agenda

the worst thing about censorship is ...

The Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State hosted its latest Tech@State conference on Internet freedom last week.  A couple of us went to the conference and took away many new ideas, but it also made us think about what an Internet freedom agenda would look like worldwide – if that is even possible.

In a perfect world, it would be great if anyone anywhere in the world had the freedom to say whatever they wanted to online with impunity.  But we all know this is certainly not true.  The State Department had to deal with a crisis recently when filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, posted the trailer to his film, The Innocence of Muslims, on YouTube last July.  The trailer sparked protests throughout the Islamic world and put the issue of censorship up for global discussion.

The theme of this conference was to look at the various forms of censorship attempts worldwide in a broader context and present potential solutions most policymakers and activists could possibly agree to work on in the near future.  Michael Posner, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), said that issues such as cyber security, malware protection and mobile security can support a better online experience for all Internet users.

“Everyone has a role in Internet governance,” Posner said.  “We need to keep working together to identify emerging trends and needs in the field and where the State Department and the U.S. government can help.”

Another broad theme from the conference was a need to address Internet censorship in all countries, and not just with the “usual suspects” like China, Iran and Russia.  Andrew McLaughlin, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, pointed out that countries that have vigorous democracies are also to blame for suppressing online freedom.

Even in the United States there have been many efforts by some groups to put a clamp on the Internet via SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and CISPA.  He noted that some Internet restrictions are admirable, such as issues related to child endangerment and copyright infringement.  However, McLaughlin also noted that these same restrictive online tools can be used in a bad way, and he is finding a “troubling” divide growing in between bordered nations and the border-less Internet, even in supposedly democratic nations.

Germanyit’s illegal to promote Nazi propaganda, deny the Holocaust or to advocate for war

India – the world’s largest democracy is known to have a multitude of Internet censorship issues

Iraq – The U.S. used “bringing democracy” as an excuse for invading Iraq in 2003. The country recently proposed (and tabled) a blasphemy law similar to those in neighboring countries

Turkey – a U.S. ally straddling Western and Eastern sensibilities made it illegal many years ago to speak ill of the country’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, among many other offenses, despite many recent reform attempts at the European Union

Thailand – A growing democracy, but since the September 2006 military coup d’état, the country has seen a growing rate of censorship for a variety of political reasons.  Chief among them, it is illegal to speak ill of King Bhumibol Adulyadej

South Korea – the most Internet connected country in the world has a history of shutting down websites that promoted anti-conscription and LGBT issues, arrests North Korea sympathizers and deletes blog posts criticizing the president.

France – strictly prohibits websites promoting racial hatred

Mexico – Many analysts believe that the drug-related killings of many Mexican journalists and bloggers might have something to do with spies from the country’s highly monopolized telecommunications industry

Nigeria – recently started restricting online communications about ethnic conflicts in the northern part of the country

Australia – the country recently gave up on efforts to set up a really strict, nationwide Internet filtering system

In addition, there are also governments that seem to openly allow online perpetrators to harass vulnerable individuals and groups.  Courtney Radsch, a journalist and expert on Internet activism in the Middle East, told the conference that women worldwide are routinely harassed and stalked online and have their reputations damaged for standing up for their rights.  In many cases, she said, online harassment can turn into real physical and sexual violence.

Golnaz Esfandiari, a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe and editor of the blog Persian Letters, said there is no record of how many women use social media in Iran, but the ones that have access to the Internet use it effectively for discussions and mobilization on many women’s issues.  Esfandiari also said that the LGBT community in Iran prominently uses Facebook and blogs; however, they also face the same amount of online harassment and stalking as women.  She said a Facebook page was created to actually threaten the gang rape of gay men in Iran.

“If we want Internet freedom, we have to address these issues too,” Radsch said.

Truly if vulnerable communities can not have equality online, then there is no equality for anyone.  A coalition of activists and organizations launched discussions last year around creating an Internet Declaration Of Freedom, which supports five basic principles: expression, access, openness, innovation and privacy.

Declaration of Internet Freedom

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

  • Expression: Don’t censor the Internet.
  • Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.
  • Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.
  • Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users’ actions.
  • Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

We like these principles, but do you agree with them?  We want to open this discussion up to our reading audience.  What should a global Internet freedom agenda look like? Do you think world governments will ever come to a consensus on having a totally free and open Internet? Or will cultural, political and social sensitivities continue to dictate online restrictions?

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