In this workshop the struggle between a free and open internet and a government who want to control the internet was being discussed. Panelists were Lionel Veer (Dutch Human Rights Ambassador), Hanane Boujemi (coordinator for the Diplo Foundation and Program manager of Hivos program 'Internet Governance for the Mena region'), Malavika Jayaram (practicing lawyer and a fellow of the Centre for Internet and Society and working on a Ph.D. on data protection and privacy laws), Emin Milli (an Azerbaijani writer) and Marietje Schaake (Dutch Member of European Parliament). Moderator was Robert Guerra (an independent consultant specializing in issues of Internet Freedom, Internet Governance and Human Rights).
The freedom of internet is increasingly causing heated debate . On the one hand the internet is the embodiment of freedom literally crossing all borders, on the other hand governments more and more think of curtailing e.g. social media when these are used to organize criminal activities. Governments in some countries restrict access to the internet or censor information even before their citizens go online. As a matter of fact the internet in Iran and China has already become an ‘intranet’. But also in the UK there is a growing body of public opinion that is in favor of more supervision of social media. When will the influence of this medium have become so strong that it, in certain situations, could be considered a danger to society? Will supervision then be a solution?
In this workshop several panelists led by Robert Guerra sought for the answer to the key question: What risks do information suppression and surveillance have on security, privacy and openness and how can public and private sectors cooperate to support and observe human rights?
Hanane Boujemi opened the workshop. She spoke about the impact of the Internet on civil liberties in the Middle East. In terms of freedom of expression, she said, the Internet has become one of the main channels for the Arab citizens to express themselves and their views more freely, specifically about political issues. The Internet helped as well engaging people at the larger scale to advocate for the rights to free expression, access to information, citizen involvement and the policy making process at the local level and regional level as well. According to Hanane, students, activists and journalists manage somehow to find a common point that is the Internet where they could share ideas. She saw the government realized much later the Internet is inevitably a pressure tool that they were facing. They realized they finally have to fulfill the citizens' demand for more inclusion. Hanane stated out the Internet provided the basic platform for this course to occur for civil rights, like freedom of expression to be guaranteed.
“Social media happened to be one of the channels where everybody had synchronous thinking of what is the concern of each citizen.”
Hanane then focuses on another important civil liberty that is enhanced because of the Internet in the Arab region, freedom of association. Because in some Arab countries it's difficult to gather in groups and discuss issues that are political. The Internet managed to give these people a platform. So it was revolutionized, the freedom of expression. The Internet gave those people an alternative to meet for discussion, said Hanane. the Internet constitutes an alternative for these people to meet to share their views in case it was not possible to do it physically. Obviously the Internet limited governments, clamped down, had discussions about sensitive issues. There were no barriers anymore to discuss things.
Finally, Hanane tells these freedoms have a downside, because social media channels like Facebook and Twitter made it easier for authorities to track down freedom of expression advocates, which resulted in arrests, activists, physical abuse, force and more oppression.
Malavika Najaram focused on the situation in India where the use of internet grows fast en the expectations are high.
“I think we use technology as a tool to solve everything but in a lot of respects it's literally a way to crack open a wall.”
Malavika is critical about the usage of the Internet, without a framework of privacy and data protection laws, technology is not going to be an enabler and greatly transformative, she said. In India there is a huge trend towards transparency, which leads to very interesting tension between transparency on one hand and privacy on the other, it might reveal confidential information and sensitive data about individuals, which is an unintended consequence.
Another thing Malavika stated out is the way the Indian government handles social media.
She tells they had a little Twittergate episode in India recently. There was misinformation on Twitter and the government decided to block about 300 websites and Twitter accounts. In doing so it showed how badly the government handles technology. There were people complaining on Twitter how the Indian government was trying to sensor the Internet. Malavika was fascinated by this happening and is skeptical about the approach of the government.
Lastly, Malavika focuses on surveillance which is increasing because the amount of data is also increasing (big data) she said. With data being more visible, people are being more accountable than ever. In the same way that post 9/11 you had the Patriot Act and a lot of invasions, it's the same situation we're facing in India now, she concluded.
Emin Mili spoke about his experience as an Azeri writer, mostly online, with his government. The Azeri government is claiming to have free Internet in Azerbaijan, which is quite hard to argue against. Because basically technically you can go on Facebook, on Twitter, any social media and write whatever you want in Azerbaijan and it will be online. However, the problem comes after that, Emin said. The government reacts to that with a lot of repression and from time to time punish some people for being outspoken online. A natural result of that is that the rest are afraid to lose jobs, people get the message and live in fear, Emin said.
“I think that we can have, and what we observe is yes we have democracy 2.0 but also autocracy 2.0”
Emin is afraid that Azerbaijan is unpopular by media, because as a case for Azerbaijan it's not so bad as other places, but it's not great either. If we don't pay attention to this, autocracy could become acceptable as a global standard, Emin concluded.
Marietje Schaake approached the subject from a more political point of view. Marietje is now carrying out a unique research into internet freedom all over the world. The research should lead to a resolution on civil rights in our digital era. Subjects treated are trade, human rights, development, safety and the like. The report will contain a number of concrete suggestions both for businesses and for governments, so as on the one hand to expand opportunities with the help of technology, but also to limit possible risks.
On the one hand, Marietje said, I think one of the most urgent issues we need to deal with in Europe is we stop the export of technologies that are used for mass surveillance, censorship, monitoring, tracking and tracing when it comes to violating universal human rights. It is a largely unregulated sphere where EU based companies can go ahead and export to all kinds of countries in the world which we know systematic civil rights abuses are taking place. It cannot be in today's day and age that there is such unregulated trade of digital arms when they're used for human rights violations, she said.
“I think it's essential for the leaders in the world that we step up our policies, but also our projects to defend people's universal human rights in the context of technologies.”
Secondly, Marietje tells she has been pushing for an EU strategy on digital freedom in the EU external actions, because digital freedom does not exist in a vacuum. This applies to rather large trade policies but also with the EU when they deal with candidate member states as well as development programs, Internet Governance and an appropriate balance between security and freedom. Because I'm afraid that the more important digital technologies are and access to Internet becomes easier, the more ambitious also will be those seeking to regain control, she concluded.
Finally, Lionel Veer spoke about his concerns regarding seeing the internet as whole different world than the offline, physical world we are living in. He is concerned about the fact that people that are on the Internet are exposed to physical abuse in the real world and not in the virtual world. These are concrete violations of human rights, he said.
Lionel emphasis to be careful not to make too many separations between the offline rights and the online rights. The Dutch government, for example, takes a start point that any rights you are guaranteed offline should also be guaranteed online. So take caution not to go on the part of introducing new rights or new restrictions, because often what could start out as a debate with good intentions ends up restricting the Internet without any good cause, he said. Also regarding to cyber security, Lionel emphasis to put freedom first and only limit when you think it is really necessary and serves as a very practical purpose.
Lionel thinks it is very crucial to have what you call a multi-stakeholder approach. Talking about Internet, it's not just a matter of government to government it's a multi-stakeholder dialogue, including many public and private debates and engagements.
Lastly, Lionel focuses on the so-called technical debates we're having. He thinks the underlying current, is that there is a certain wish in many countries who violate human rights who are not so keen on having freedom of expression that they want to introduce the notion of control, of restriction, and bring it as a technical matter. Or they tell it is for protection of the children. Lionel says we have to be careful with those debates.
“Because in the end if you are not careful, you end up restricting much more freedom than we would like to do”
After these statement Robert Guerra emphasis the evolution in the change of the Internet and how free or closed it's becoming now. More and more countries a blocking websites these days, from just several about 10 years ago to more than 42 countries today that are blocking websites. And this is introducing a variety of different types of policy controls and other types of initiatives.
Is too much expression a bad thing? Are there justifiable limits to civil rights online or is it the wild west and anything should be able to happen and be expressed online?
Hanane Boujemi reacts to this question and begins with saying it's quite a dangerous field. Se stated out that we need to be very specific about what are the rights we want to advocate for. If we want people to have freedom of expression we have to disassociate ourselves from our cultural, religious background, ideas, and stick to human rights and civil liberties and all the concepts recognized at the international level.
What do we need to watch over the next year or two?
This time Marietje Schaake responded: where to start! She thinks it's significant to see how technologies have empowered individuals and how they've actually enabled them to break through traditional monopolies of power, but also information. According to Marietje we must ensure that we are aware that digital freedoms or technological developments do not exist in a vacuum. We should continue to push for the development of the rule of law and rights, regardless technologies or if we're talking about technologies at all.
She also emphasis we should be very much aware of the global context within which we're operating. Marietje wants to take it a step further, start thinking of human rights when it comes to design. Do scenarios and human rights impact assessments in the Research and Development phase where we actually think much more deeply and sort of preventively about what a certain technology that may make sense in one society could actually mean for the lives of people and freedoms of people in a very different society. To develop the thinking about this, to bring together political leadership as well as technological knowledge, as well as willingness on the part of companies and expertise on defenders is going to be a major challenge going forward, she said.
How do we make sure that the countries that are committing themselves to protection of human rights online is the same offline or actually holding themselves to the commitment? Should we just be watching developing countries or should developed democracies also be monitored to see how they are internationally?
Lionel Veer responded to this question: I think the biggest challenge is to prevent the Internet and the online to prevent producing a tool for oppression. On the other side, in the free world the biggest challenge is to prevent it from being only exploited as a commercial asset. Somewhere in between human rights activists are struggling for their priorities.
In the context of India, the role of intermediaries, for example, research and motion, are they the ones that should also be trying to strive for protection of civil liberties or acquiesce to all government requests?
Malavika Najaram responded and said in India they have both ends of the spectrum. When there is offensive content posted online and the governments go after the intermediaries, a lot of India websites cave because they don't have legal council. But on the other hand we have a weird situation where the Googles and Facebooks are usually the suspects to take information and data mine it and invade privacy. They're in a weird way safeguarding freedom of speech and expression because they turn around and say we're not going to take this down. We've not done it anywhere else. We're not starting in India. They have the resources, deep pockets, skills, legal expertise to actually push back and litigate these things and say, you know what, we're in Delaware, we don't really care.
This workshop is organized by:
- Dutch Internet Governance Forum (NL IGF)
- Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Hivos, the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation