Like Democracies, Internet Freedom Cannot Be Taken For Granted

Published:  December 22, 2011

If there had been any doubt before, events over the past year have underscored just how important the Internet has become for activists fighting for human rights and democracy around the world. However, 2011 also highlighted how censorship, surveillance, and the shutdown of Internet and wireless services can impact digital activism. Shutdowns bookedended the year with Egypt in January to Kazakhstan in December. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested shutting off access to social media in response to the August riots in London. In the United States, the Twitter hashtag #muBARTek was inspired when the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) staff turned off cell-phone towers in response to protests.

To reflect on 2011 and look forward to 2012 the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative hosted some of the activists who depend on a free and open Internet in celebration of International Human Rights Day. The December 9 discussion examined how the Internet has supported activism for human rights and social justice over the last year, and how the United States —  particularly the U.S. Congress — can best support a free and open global Internet. The Congressional staff briefing featured Anas Qtiesh, a Global Voices Editor, Jochai Ben-Avie, the policy director for Access, Clothilde le Coz, a freelance journalist and former head of the Washington, DC office for Reporters Without Borders, and Nasser Weddady, Civil Rights Outreach Director for the American Islamic Congress and was moderated by the New America Foundation’s Rebecca MacKinnon. Focusing on the opportunities and threats to the Internet and human rights including two major themes emerged: how copyright enforcement could impact Internet freedom and how to address dangers posed surveillance technologies.

The U.S. Congress is currently reviewing two pieces of legislation that are ostensibly aimed at strengthening copyright enforcement, but could instead have a detrimental impact on Internet freedom. The two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and Protect IP in the Senate propose adopting the same tools of censorship used to control information in China for use in the United States. The use of these tools would lead to a U.S. Internet firewall, the bills have raised concerns with human rights organizations and constitutional scholars alike.

According to the panelists, these bills have not taken human rights into account. Qtiesh explained “the first question for any Internet legislation should be: ‘Does it restrict free speech?’”  However, SOPA and Protect IP have overly broad definitions for infringing websites and Ben-Avie cautioned, that if passed, the bills would undermine free speech and inherently lead to websites inadvertently being blocked. Citing previous examples of the U.S. government’s attempts to take websites offline, he explained how in early 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 84,000 websites hosted by Mooo.com rather than targeting the 10 blogs that had been accused of hosting illicit content.

The practice of filtering the Internet is not consistent with, in fact runs counter to, Internet freedom. Le Coz explained that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has in fact warned against the dangers of state censorship of websites. Speaking at the Hague the day before the event Secretary Clinton warned: Fragmenting the global Internet by erecting barriers around national Internets would change the landscape of cyberspace.” When asked about policies in countries that cut user’s off from the Internet Qtiesh responded: “If someone is caught counterfeiting $100 bills you don't stop them from using currency” but this type of misguided punishment is actually being explored for Internet users.

Drawing from his experience as a long-time activist living and traveling in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Weddady explained that bills like SOPA and Protect IP would have global implications: other countries will cite the U.S. as an example that filtering the Internet is an acceptable practice.

However, employing censorship tools in the United States also undermines the U.S. moral authority to criticise foreign regimes.  Wedaddy quoted Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah who has argued that democracies like the United States must “fight the troubling trends emerging in your own backyards.” El Fattah is currently imprisoned in Egpyt, and Weddady explained that if the U.S. avoids practicing Internet freedom at home, it loses the credibility to demand the release of bloggers and activists abroad.

A second major concern raised during the discussion was the use of Western surveillance technology to aid repressive regimes. For example, in October the Wall Street Journal reported that technology from Blue Coat was being used to censor the Internet in Syria.But despite the dangers of surveillance technology, Qtiesh and le Coz warned that any restrictions must be take care not to prevent the spread of positive uses of technologies or limit the flow of information. Google Earth, Qtiesh explained, could help citizens find escape routes in Syria but while “the Syrian government has back-channels to acquire technology, citizens do not.” Le Coz echoed Qtiesh’s concern, noting that sections will not stop countries from getting the technology they seek.

Abuse of surveillance technology is a much wider spread problem impacting a a number of countries.  Weddady explained that policymakers must consider the Middle East as well as North Africa. In fact, a December 20, 2011 report from Bloomberg documents that technology from Western democracies such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France are being sold to Tunisia, Bahrain, and Iran in addition to Syria. In December, Representative Chris Smith (R - NJ) introduced the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) to address the export of surevilence technologies to repressive regimes, though Le Coz noted that the effort must be a cooperative effort between multiple counties.  Le Coz also noted that legislation such as the GOFA must do more than control the export of technology - it must also track which countries might acquire it from resellers. The European Union is also working on addressing the issue, explained Ben-Avie.

Weddady argued that while there is a discussion about the sale of technologies, there is not enough talk about the lobbyists who are pushing the sale of surveillance technology under the guise of competitiveness or jobs. He argued: “Where I come from we called them Ministries of Information. Here you call them PR firms.” In fact, the promotion of U.S. jobs has indeed been used as a defense in the sale of surveillance technologies. Writing in a Wall Street Journal Letter to the Editor Tatiana Lucas with Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) cautioned that an article exposing the sale of surveillance technologies “will have a negative effect on job creation in the U.S.”  Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies, thea company that promotes ISS World, has argued: "That's just not my job to determine who's a bad country and who's a good country.” However,  his insistence that his “business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology” has drawn criticism from Secretary Clinton’s Advisor Alec Ross.

Looking forward to 2012, rebuilding of post-revolution nations like Tunisia and Egypt creates a unique opportunity for promoting access to information. MacKinnon posed the question of “how can we help the emerging democracies in technological constitutional moments?” While supporting post-revolution nations  is a much bigger question than what could have been tackled in a morning conversation, one theme was clear: United States policies reverberate worldwide. Whether these polices address copyright infringement, the use of surveillance technologies, or free speech on the Internet, the United States must take the responsibility of a global leader.

Capping the final comment on the event Weddady said: “We cannot take our democracies for granted.” Internet freedom is no different.

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.

Related Programs