Keeping the Internet Free
Changes could be afoot in the way the internet is run. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is currently convening a conference from December 3-14 to revise a decades-old treaty, in which only governments have a vote. This landmark conference will review the current International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services, as well as ensuring their efficiency and widespread public usefulness and availability. However, some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries.
Vinton Cerf of Google says “Starting in 1973, when my colleagues and I proposed the technology behind the Internet, we advocated for an open standard to connect computer networks together. This wasn’t merely philosophical; it was also practical.
Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.”
Vinton Cerf, along with American computer scientist Bob Kahn, is often called one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Cerf is credited with helping to develop the protocols and structure of the internet and the first commercial email system. He told CNN: “According to a new OECD study, the net already accounts of 13% of American business output, impacting every industry, from communications to cars, and restaurants to retail. Not since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, or Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, has a human invention empowered so many and offered so much possibility for benefiting humankind.
Today, this free and open net is under threat. Some 42 countries filter and censor content out of the 72 studied by the Open Net Initiative. This doesn’t even count serial offenders such as North Korea and Cuba. Over the past two years, Freedom House says governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression.
Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of The International Telecommunication Union that opens on December 3 in Dubai to further their repressive agendas. Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticize their governments.”
So far more than 1,000 organizations from more than 160 countries have been joined by hundreds of thousands of Internet users who are standing up for a free and open Internet and signing Google’s petition for a free and open internet. On an interactive map at freeandopenweb.com, it is clear that the objectors to any changes who have signed Google’s petition, used the #freeandopen hashtag on social media, or created and uploaded videos to say how important these issues are, come from all over the world.
Cerf says, “The net’s future is far from assured and history offers much warning. Within a few decades of Gutenberg’s creation, princes and priests moved to restrict the right to print books.
History is rife with examples of governments taking actions to “protect” their citizens from harm by controlling access to information and inhibiting freedom of expression and other freedoms outlined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We must make sure, collectively, that the internet avoids a similar fate.”
For many of today’s writers, the loss of free access to the internet would be akin to cutting off their air supply. International PEN have published an open declaration on their position on digital freedom:
PEN recognizes the promise of digital media as a means of fulfilling the fundamental right of free expression. At the same time, poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists, writers, bloggers, and journalists are suffering violations of their right to freedom of expression for using digital media. Citizens in many countries have faced severe restrictions in their access to and use of digital media, while governments have exploited digital technologies to suppress freedom of expression and to surveil individuals. The private sector and technology companies in particular have at times facilitated government censorship and surveillance. PEN therefore declares the following:
1. All persons have the right to express themselves freely through digital media without fear of reprisal or persecution.
a. Individuals who use digital media enjoy full freedom of expression protections under international laws and standards.
b. Governments must not prosecute individuals or exact reprisals upon individuals who convey information, opinions, or ideas through digital media.
c. Governments must actively protect freedom of expression on digital media by enacting and enforcing effective laws and standards.
2. All persons have the right to seek and receive information through digital media.
a. Governments should not censor, restrict, or control the content of digital media, including content from domestic and international sources.
b. In exceptional circumstances, any limitations on the content of digital media must adhere to international laws and standards that govern the limits of freedom of expression, such as incitement to violence.
c. Governments should not block access to or restrict the use of digital media, even during periods of unrest or crisis. Controlling access to digital media, especially on a broad scale, inherently violates the right to freedom of expression.
d. Governments should foster and promote full access to digital media for all persons.
3. All persons have the right to be free from government surveillance of digital media.
a. Surveillance, whether or not known by the specific intended target, chills speech by establishing the potential for persecution and the fear of reprisals. When known, surveillance fosters a climate of self-censorship that further harms free expression.
b. As a general rule, governments should not seek to access digital communications between or among private individuals, nor should they monitor individual use of digital media, track the movements of individuals through digital media, alter the expression of individuals, or generally surveil individuals.
c. When governments do conduct surveillance—in exceptional circumstances and in connection with legitimate law enforcement or national security investigations—any surveillance of individuals and monitoring of communications via digital media must meet international due process laws and standards that apply to lawful searches, such as obtaining a warrant by a court order.
d. Full freedom of expression entails a right to privacy; all existing international laws and standards of privacy apply to digital media, and new laws and standards and protections may be required.
e. Government gathering and retention of data and other information generated by digital media, including data mining, should meet international laws and standards of privacy, such as requirements that the data retention be time-limited, proportionate, and provide effective notice to persons affected.
4. The private sector, and technology companies in particular, are bound by the right to freedom of expression and human rights.
a. The principles stated in this declaration equally apply to the private sector.
b. Companies must respect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, and must uphold these rights even when national laws and regulations do not protect them.
c. Technology companies have a duty to determine how their products, services, and policies impact human rights in the countries in which they intend to operate. If violations are likely, or violations may be inextricably linked to the use of products or services, the companies should modify or withdraw their proposed plans in order to respect human rights.
d. Technology companies should incorporate freedom of expression principles into core operations, such as product designs with built-in privacy protections.
e. If their operations are found to have violated the right to freedom of expression, technology companies should provide restitution to those whose rights were violated, even when governments do not provide remedies.