Free Speech Threatened: Who Should Control The Internet?

As a traditional journalist who is fairly new to appreciating the freedom of expression available to independent journalists and bloggers over the Internet; I was really interested to attend a forum in Washington DC this week hosted by the Center For International Media Assistance (CIMA).

Clear and Present Danger: Attempts To Change Internet Governance and Implications for Press Freedom”’ featured a panel of free press activists who talked about proposed changes to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Treaty. If those proposals are adopted, they said, the revised treaty would dramatically threaten the freedom of expression enjoyed by people who use the Internet worldwide.

The ITU is a United Nations agency which will hold a meeting of world governments in December to discuss changes to its current treaty. While the treaty does not cover core Internet governance issues; Russia and China are advocating for an expansion of its scope to include regulations aimed at increasing cybersecurity, fighting cyber crime, and protecting children.

Expanding the treaty in that way would radically change the traditional multi-stakeholder Internet governance model; a consensus-driven, private-sector approach. It would instead have a top-down, centralized, international regulatory structure. This, panel participants said, would pave the way for government repression, surveillance, and control of the free and open Internet.

How and why this could happen is summarized on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website:

“Online anonymity, privacy and free expression are likely to be under attack under an ITU model. ITU officials have publically stated that anonymity shouldn’t exist in the future. Moreover, countries like Russia and China, in particular, have been prominent advocates of codes of conduct that seek to protect national governmental powers over the Internet, including provisions that seek to censor the net.”

Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalist and activist whose work focuses on the intersection of Internet, human rights, and foreign-policy, explained that this is just the latest in a series of attempts by ITU member states to shift control of the root functions of the internet–such as handing out IP addresses–from the organization that is currently in charge; the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the ITU.

Authoritarian countries, she says, “just don’t want civil society decision-making, because they want internet governance to be the realm of governments”. But, she adds, “There are also concerns from a number of countries, like Brazil, and India. They look at ICANN, they look at the decision-making processes, and they see a lot of Western white guys who don’t have the cultural background and understanding of the issues faced by internet users in the developing world.”

So, she says, “If the multi-stakeholder model is going to survive the continued challenges that are brought to it; the people who have dominated the internet governance and standards processes to date, need to do a lot more work diversifying the process; bringing in civil society, bringing in engineering communities from the global South, and really helping them to build capacity from people who may have different views than their governments on what’s important to them”.

While protecting freedom of expression on the internet–especially for people who do have different views from their own governments–was the central theme of their discussion; panelists did acknowledge that the cybersecurity issues used as a basis for China and Russia’s bid to get the ITU treaty changed, are indeed valid concerns.

Emma Llanso, a policy consultant with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) said  “International coordination on these issues is vitally important. But, as we’re looking at issues like cybercrime and data privacy; where the responses to them need to be adaptable in response to changes in technology, and where we’re talking about fundamental issues like civil liberties, due process, or child safety; those are not the right kinds of issues to be addressed in this particular treaty body in this way.”

Katitza Rodriguez, who is the International Rights Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says she recognizes that the current Internet governance model is ‘imperfect” with regard to addressing cybersecurity issues. She says as more information goes into the cloud, resulting in the dispersal of data across national boundaries; it becomes very difficult to enforce the laws that many different countries already have on the books with regard to Internet crime. But, she contends that while there needs to be more effective enforcement of those laws–the way to do it is not best accomplished through changes to the ITU treaty.

 MacKinnon added, ” I think the problem right now is the issue of how do you deal with real security issues on the internet  and on global networks that need to be addressed; but not just completely give governments and excuse to do whatever they want with our data, and to be opaque about how they’re handling information.”

She says this could  “create an unaccountable surveillance state”, and added; “What this is ultimately about is yes, we need security, but we also need accountability. We need to know when abuse is happening, and hold abusers accountable.” If the proposed treaty changes are adopted, she says “networks may be free, but the people using them may not be”.

That is a reasonable fear, as was explained by Emin Milli, a writer and dissident from Azerbaijan. Milli, who has been a vocal critic of his government, says while the Internet is technically free in his country, citizens there are not free to openly criticize the government.

He speaks from experience, as he was jailed in 2009 for two and half years after blogging about his political views. He was conditionally released in November 2010, after serving 16 months of his sentence, in part due to strong international pressure on the government of Azerbaijan.

Milli talked about how important it is to ensure that governments do not have the power to silence opposition. In his country, he says, the pressure on journalists is extreme. He says some have been killed, thrown in prison, and even blackmailed with explicit sexual images posted online.

A representative from the Azerbaijani Embassy who was in the audience, denied Milli’s charges during the forum’s question and answer period, saying that his government does not punish people for their political views, and that it had nothing to do with blackmailing journalist Khadija Ismailova.

How that country, which borders Russia an Iran, handles Internet freedom is actually quite relevant in any discussion about proposed treaty changes. That’s because the United Nations is having its 7th annual Internet Governance forum in Azerbaijan in November–just one month before the ITU meets in Dubai to discuss the treaty.

Looking at the proposed treaty changes from another perspective, and tying it into another huge story that has global implications; is the whole issue of state-sponsored malware reportedly unleashed by the US and Israel against Iran in order to keep that country from moving forward with its nuclear development program.

In an essay for CNN, Cybersecurity expert, James Lewis, said:

“The International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. body that wants to play a dominant role in cybersecurity and Internet governance, asked Kaspersky, a Russian firm, to help find an unknown piece of malware that was deleting sensitive information across the Middle East. The ITU issued a confidential warning, now plastered all over the Internet. These are unprecedented actions.

How did the ITU learn of this? Why did it go to Kaspersky? There is a political context here, since Russia is pushing the ITU to play a bigger role in order to undercut what it perceives as American control of the Internet. Where the Flame story fits into this political battle is unclear, but there are alternative hypotheses to serendipity when it comes to explaining Flame that we might want to test.”

For more information on this issue and related stories; follow these links:

Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA)
International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
US Vows To Block Any Changes To Global Telecommunications Treaty That Curtail Internet Freedom
Azerbaijan: Investigative Journalist Defiant After Blackmail Threat
US; Israel Developed Flame Virus to Slow Iranian Nuclear Efforts, Officials Say

Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)

Internet Governance Forum

FBI Cybercrime Sting Leads to 24 Arrests
Flame: A Glimpse Into The Future Of War
Email Accounts More Valuable Than Bank Accounts


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