Centre for Internet & Society

The freedom to access the internet does not translate into freedom of expression in many countries of the world, including in western economies, according to speakers at a peer forum organised yesterday by the United States mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Catherine Saez wrote this for Intellectual Property Watch on June 22, 2012

Both governments and companies, prime providers of internet surveillance technologies in particular in the developed countries, need to be held accountable for the destination and use of those technologies, some of which run counter to human rights.

The peer forum on internet freedom and human rights was held on 21 June and gathered technology experts, and human right activists, with the participation of the mission’s Internet Freedom Fellows programme, organised since 2011 in parallel with the UN Human Rights Council.

Freedom to connect exists in most countries where internet surveillance runs counter to human rights but not freedom from fear, Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN journalist and co-founder of Global Voices Online said.

“Internet freedom does not mean just free networks, it means free people,” MacKinnon said. “Accomplishing that and constraining the abuse of power across digital networks is a tough problem.”

Strong Global Standard Needed, Democracies also Concerned

In the Internet Age, it is technically trivial both for corporations and governments to gain access to people’s private communications, she said. The issue is that without strong global standards the empowering potential of the internet is going to be diminished, she said. This is true not only for interconnection but also public transparency and accountability in how surveillance technologies are developed, deployed. And it applies to how information is shared between governments and between companies and governments.

Even in democracies, “we are really struggling” with the issue of how to make sure that in the legitimate fight against crime, terrorism, cyber attacks, which all are real problems, the mechanisms put in place are not abused, she said. How can it ensured that those who hold power through those mechanisms will be accountable when they use that power for purposes that were not intended, she asked. She cited a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union http://www.aclu.org/spy-files on widespread surveillance by US law enforcement agencies across the US.

Surveillance technologies “are being sold very obviously to governments who clearly are going to abuse that technology,” she said. She mentioned what has been nicknamed the “Wiretappers’ Ball” to describe trade fairs run by a company which invites law enforcement and security agencies from around the world to meet with companies that built those technologies.

The last one of those fairs was held “not too far from Washington, DC” and 35 US federal agencies were present, along with representatives of 43 different countries, she said, with ” no questions asked.”

A lot of these technologies are being built or developed primarily by western companies with western governments as prime customers, but are being sold blatantly to countries like Azerbaijan (which has been reported recently for its crackdown on free expression) and others, she said.

As a major customer, the United States needs to demand transparency on the part of these companies about where those technologies are being sold and used, MacKinnon said, adding, “Internet freedom starts at home.”

There is a need to demand that governments be accountable and transparent on what surveillance technologies exist and how they are being deployed and used, and not only at the domestic level, but globally.

As an example of transparency, she cited the Google transparency report, which lists the number of requests from governments around the world both for user information and takedown requests. MacKinnon said the top requesters were democratic governments.

All companies should be requested to provide similar transparency reports, she said, and governments should also issue transparency reports about the number of requests they are making. “There should be ways to do this without compromising active investigation,” she said.

MacKinnon recently published a book entitled, “Consent of the Networked.”

Internet: Shopping Mall or Public Square
A panel discussion addressed the protection of human rights in a world of global networks in which two visions of the internet were described. One is§ the internet as a shopping mall, mainly owned by private interests, the other one as a public square.

Robert Whelan from the International Committee of the Red Cross raised the concept of informed consent in the context of victims of armed conflicts. The victims of violation of human rights law have the right to know what information is going to be used about their experience, or their story, he said. They should know where this information will go, who is going to see it, have access to it, where that information is going to be replicated or reproduced and when will that information will be deleted, he added.

The challenge is to put the civilian victims at the centre, and in control of the information about their experience. This is at odds with the concept of free exchange of information, he said, citing as examples the “re-tweeting” and reproducing of articles, photographs and names on the internet.

Nicolas Seidler from the Internet Society said the internet is not “the wild west” but just the digital version of the real world, and as such is subject to the same human rights instruments. The challenge is that no new rights are needed; rather the need is to implement and reinforce human rights standards on the internet, he said. Governments’ management of the internet is but a reflection of their overall management, he said.

For Brett Solomon, executive director of Accessnow.org, a US-based nongovernmental organisation pushing for digital freedom, several issues are laid out in the “Silicon Valley Standard” [pdf]. The standard was developed after the Silicon Valley human rights conference held in San Francisco in 2011.

The effort to protect rights holders and copyrights by the copyright industry, which he qualified as “voracious,” is putting internet intermediaries at risk of liability, he said.

Effective internet security is essential, he said, as “there is no freedom of speech unless people feel safe and secure.” He called for the right to encryption of web activity. “Technology companies must provide a basic level of security … to their users by default and resist bans and curtailments of the use of encryption,” the standard says.

David Sullivan, policy and communications director for the Global Network Initiative (GNI) presented the initiative, which gathers information and communication technology stakeholders and provides a framework for companies based on international standards. Companies that commit to GNI standards also commit to being assessed independently, he said, on how they implement principles, if they have policies and procedures in place to meet standards and accountability commitments.

Sullivan cited the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the failed US legislation, as a policy effort aimed at solving one problem around copyright infringing material that is was “going to have deeply worrisome repercussions around the world as other countries look at that example in ways that could have deeply problematic consequences in terms of censorship.”

This year, the human right activists participating in the Internet Freedom Fellows programme are: Dishad Othman from Syria, Pranesh Prakash from India, Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou from Burkina Faso, Sopheap Chak from Cambodia, Andreas Azpurua from Venezuela and Emin Milli from Azerbaijan. Short biographies are here.

Emin Milli, a writer who was imprisoned for expressing his opinion in Azerbajian, said he looked at internet as a public square and not a shopping mall but the situations vastly differ from one country to the other, he added, as contexts are very different. The Eurovision song contest, which was held in the country this year, was a great opportunity for civil society, with the help of international media to draw attention to the situation of Azerbaijan.

Dishad Othman, a Syrian activist and IT engineer, characterised himself as a security activist as he is helping people to use tools to hide themselves on the internet. Sharing experiences from different countries is very important, he said, calling for a larger group of international activists who could help people but also technology companies to provide a safer environment and to promote freedom on the internet so that “all people can benefit from it.”

Pranesh Prakash, programme manager at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, said people have tools to protect themselves from surveillance that they do not use. In particular, he said, many journalists do not know how to use those tools, especially in the context of journalists’ computers and files that are seized, endangering their sources.