- building platforms that facilitate online expression, discourse, and/or organizing;
- fighting censorship and surveillance;
- working to shape laws and policies in a way that protects and facilitates people's ability to exercise their rights to free expression and assembly;
- informing the public about threats by governments, companies, or others to online free expression and assembly through various forms of research and reporting;
- educating the public about how to use technologies that can help us exercise our rights when they are threatened by censorship and surveillance;
- providing financial support for one or more of the above.
Government involvement: Some activists were very uncomfortable about the fact that a young woman from the U.S. State Department, whose job is to work on "Internet freedom" issues, attended our public conference - a conference that was free for anybody who registered before we ran out of space. Global Voices Advocacy Director Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian exile and grassroots activist, said he worries government money is poisoning the online activism space, causing grassroots causes to be hijacked or used by geopolitical actors who he feels are more interested in influencing the politics of certain countries in certain directions than in the welfare and safety of specific individuals on the ground. He is also concerned that U.S. government money, inspired by the Obama Administration's new "Internet freedom" agenda, means that activists in politically "sexy" countries like China and Iran get lots of support and attention, while the problems faced by activists in countries whose Internet repression is less well covered in the global English-language media, from Tunisia to Russia to Thailand to Syria, are largely ignored. A lively debate about this issue ensued, with Bob Boorstin of Google (who once worked as a speechwriter in the Clinton Administration) called Sami's position "paranoid" and pointed out that like it or not, governments are players in this space. This could be a good thing, he said, if it leads to greater honesty and transparency among all governments about how they are trying to regulate and control various online and mobile spaces. An activist from Brazil argued that taking an "us vs. them" stance towards government is "b.s." "We can't keep government out of the Internet because government is part of the Internet," he said. Certainly, those of us who are citizens of democracies need to push our governments to be consistent and transparent about what they are doing in this space. We have a responsibility to make sure that our tax money is not being spent in a counterproductive, hypocritical, or duplicitous manner. That much we owe to Sami and the vulnerable grassroots communities around the world that he works with.
Corporate-owned platforms and services: Both Google and Yahoo were active at the conference and helped to fund it, along with a number of foundations. Google - along with Reuters - also funded a new Breaking Borders award for individuals or groups doing extraordinary work to promote free expression online. Google is in constant friction with a range of governments - from democracies to autocracies - seeking to regulate its platforms in various ways. While Google's executives have made a commitment to do the socially responsible thing for reasons that are honorable, it's also true that it's in Google's corporate interest to align itself with the global online free speech movement as it faces regulatory battles around the world. As I reported in my last blog post, YouTube's Victoria Grand participated in a lively session dedicated to the human rights implications of content moderation. Yet a number of participants voiced concern about over-reliance on corporate-owned platforms and service providers. As Ethan put it in an important blog post back in March: "These entities have no more legal obligation to allow open, unfettered political speech in their spaces than shopping malls do to host political rallies."
Which brings us back to the issue of "netizenship." If we depend on commercial services and platforms for our expression and assembly online, then we have to stop acting like passive "users" and start acting like "citizens" of these spaces: organizing with others and pushing the companies to act in the public interest and to take free expression and human rights fully into account. Companies will only change their practices if they feel that their brand reputations and business success depend on it.
One could build open-source, non-profit, community administered web-hosting platforms, social networking services, and e-mail systems that would not depend on companies for the most part. Mozilla's Drumbeat movement aims to educate the broader public about non-proprietary and open source alternatives available out there - and seeks to build a robust "open web" that supports a thriving international community of content creators, programmers, and citizens who take responsibility for building and defending the Internet we want. Perhaps things will evolve in a manner similar to how, in many democracies, you have commercial media companies coexisting alongside non-profit public media funded by foundations and audience donations (and in some cases also government subsidies and tax money). In cyberspace both for-profit and non-profit spaces can coexist peacefully, each serving different needs of different kinds of people and communities. Society benefits from having both, as there are some social needs - and social groups - which companies may never have much interest in serving or respecting. The "open web" can also help to keep the commercial spaces honest.
This however still doesn't solve the problem of commercial carriers lower down in the stack: Internet Service Providers in many parts of the world are monopolies and we often have little choice about who provides our basic connectivity. One self-described "anarchist" from Brazil is working to build mesh networks that would enable people to access the Internet without going through a commercial ISP. If communities could create viable mesh networks as alternatives to commercial ISP's in cases where ISP's are non-existent, unreliable, or untrustworthy, that would be interesting, but it would require a great deal more public engagement and activism than we've seen anywhere thus far.
New rights or old rights? Do we need a new Bill of Rights for Cyberspace as Jeff Jarvis and others have suggested? In Brazil they've already drafted such a document, now up for public discussion and comment. (The CPJ's Danny O'Brien provides some critical analysis of that draft, which might actually provide justification for more takedown of content without judicial oversight or due process, in the name of protecting the rights of people who are slandered.) Or do we simply need to work hard to make sure that existing internationally recognized covenants, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are fully applied to the Internet and upheld in both online and mobile spaces? A couple of efforts build on this idea. The Principles for corporate conduct developed by the Global Network Initiative are based on those existing international covenants. The Internet Governance Forum's Dynamic Coalition for Internet Rights and Principles is currently working on a document that seeks to elaborate on how existing human rights covenants should be applied by governments and companies to ICT's. That draft will be made public sometime over the summer. As a number of people at the Summit pointed out, most governments don't respect the existing rights covenants in "meatspace," and thus they're not terribly optimistic that such rights declarations will have much concrete impact. On the other hand, these U.N. documents are used by human rights activists worldwide as the moral baseline upon which to build their arguments against human rights violations. Documents clarifying how the UDHR and ICCPR should be applied to cyberspace might be helpful tools, but they are not going to lead to solutions in and of themselves.
Defining and coordinating goals across the global network This is the toughest part. Cyberspace is a global network. What people do on and to it in the U.S. or Pakistan or China can have a global impact. "Freedom" in the context of cyberspace - or in the context of human civilization - does not mean "free for all." Nor does it mean that we won't pay for anything, depsite what some in the entertainment industry may insinuate. We don't want cyberspace to be a Hobbesian state of nature in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short." This is why modern governments gain their legitimacy from the idea of a "social contract," in which we give up some of our freedoms to do anything we please for the sake of the greater social good, and if we are in a democracy those laws, rules, and enforcement institutions are formed with our consent and supervision. So how do we work out a global social contract for the civilization we are building in cyberspace?
Back in March after Google withdrew its search engine from China, British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote a column in The Guardian about how we urgently need a global debate and a global consensus around the idea that "everyone should be free to see everything, except for that limited set of things which clear, explicit global rules specify should not be available." He concluded:
It's in the infosphere that the world is coming closest, fastest, to a global village, so it's the infosphere that most urgently needs a global debate about the village rules. If we don't have that debate, and have it soon, then what you get to see on your screen will be the result of a power struggle between the old-fashioned power of the state in which you happen to be, the new-style power of the giant information companies, the insurgent force of novel information technologies, and the ingenuity of individual netizens. That's a likely outcome, but not the best.But it's hard to find consensus - even amongst liberal internationalists with different cultural and religious backgrounds - about how to find the right balance between our right to free expression and assembly and our right to privacy and security. Even trickier is the question of what is "hate speech" and what constitutes justified criticism or even satire of one religion by members of another. The Global Voices community has come together around a set of common values around freedom of expression and communication. Our Manifesto begins: "We believe in free speech: in protecting the right to speak — and the right to listen. We believe in universal access to the tools of speech." But all you need to do is to read this post about Pakistani reactions to the "Draw Mohammed Day" Facebook page, then read this post by another member of our community, to see how far we are from having a consensus about how civilized cross-cultural discourse should or shouldn't be managed on global Internet platforms.
Last August, Lisa Horner of Global Partners and Max Senges (then an academic, now at Google) published a paper titled Values, Principles, and Rights in Internet Governance, which called for a global, trans-cultural dialogue around two questions:
• Can we maintain cultural diversity while at the same time agreeing to universal values to underpin internet governance?
• Can we translate these values into practical guiding principles for different internet stakeholders, from the technical community through to regulators and users?
Looking at the world today, the answer would seem to be "No." But then we've not even attempted the kind of informed discourse that would be needed before ruling out "Yes" altogether.
Right now I see two fundamental obstacles to such a discourse. First, we don't have adequate global platforms on which to have such a multicultural discussion. As Global Voices continues to expand its multilingual translation community, and as we build capacity to translate conversations across different languages, maybe that could be a place to experiment.
Second, global publics don't have enough information to hold an informed discourse right now. People who follow global news and domestic politics in their home countries are not well informed about issues related to Internet governance, how software engineering and hardware design can affect our freedoms, how government regulations play out around the world, etc. Most news organizations cover technology as a business, cultural, and consumer phenomenon. Few journalists (I can count them on one hand) cover technology as a global political space. Very little technology journalism approaches stories with the goal of serving the interests of an informed global netizenry. We need global coverage of cyberspace as a new political space. This coverage needs to begin with questions like: "What do people need to know in order to be informed participants in shaping the future of our global network? What do people need to know in order to determine what their own interests are within the network, and to understand who and what is affecting those interests either negatively or positively? What do people need to know in order to figure out what kind of Internet they want? What do people need to know in order to understand and debate what is possible? What do people need to know about the players, institutions, companies, and politics so that they can figure out how they as citizens of the network can take action?" We need hard-hitting, original, investigative stories that help to fill this void. Perhaps it's time for somebody to create such a news organization.
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