Why internet governance matters for press freedom

(This blog post was first published at, a website of the Open Society Foundation’s Information Program.)

As the annual United Nations-run Internet Governance Forum (IGF) convenes in Baku, Azerbaijan this week, it is a bitter irony that a multi-stakeholder conference to discuss the Internet’s future is being held in a country where the government has no qualms aboutlocking up its online critics. And the IGF itself has, according to the Expression Online Initiative, even prevented the consortium of Azeri freedom of expression groups from distributing copies of two reports: Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan and The Right to Remain Silent: Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan ahead of the 7th Internet Governance Forum.

In light of this, it’s perhaps fortunate that the IGF is not a policy- or decision-making body. It is strictly a “talking shop” where all stakeholders are supposed to have a chance to air ideas and concerns about the internet’s future. But the barriers faced by Azeri free expression advocates to speaking and participating in the IGF in their own country certainly underscore why the debates over the future of internet governance and rule-making – and whether that power should reside with the United Nations or with another multi-stakeholder process less vulnerable to the concerns, sensitivities and manoeuvrings of individual nation states – are critically important for the future of press freedom.

Take, for example, a basic requirement for media organisations: the ability to reach and grow their audiences. All news organisations – whether their final news product is distributed online, in print, or broadcast – are increasingly dependent on broadband and mobile networks to gather, transmit, compile, and disseminate their reports and investigations. Whether the internet remains open and globally inter-operable affects the ability of all news organisations to obtain fair access to increasingly global or geographically-dispersed audiences.

And what about protection of journalists’ sources? And undercover or investigative journalism? Will internet users be able to have a reasonable expectation of privacy online or to secure their communications from third-party interception? Or will everybody on the network end up being subject to blanket surveillance and tracking by authorities and corporations, in the name of cyber-security and law enforcement? Decisions taken by governments and corporations regarding online privacy and security will have a tremendous impact on journalists’ ability to communicate confidentially with sources, and to conduct investigative reporting that governments and corporations may wish to suppress. Thus it’s vital that civil society – and that includes press freedom groups, journalists’ associations and media development organisations – have a seat at the table when global rules and standards for the internet are debated and decided.

For two excellent overviews of the issues at stake, see Standing up to threats to digital freedom, a white paper by Index on Censorship and UNESCO’s new report, Global survey on Internet privacy and freedom of expression.

While the IGF makes no decisions, another UN body, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), has been determining policy for the global telecoms system for decades – but now many of its members also want it to make policy decisions about how the internet is structured, regulated and developed. Proposals to that end will be discussed in December at the ITU’s next meeting, theWorld Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. (Both the Center for Democracy and Technology and theInternet Society have excellent resource pages on the various proposals up for discussion by the ITU.)

Best Bits, a coalition of civil society groups from around the world, has made it clear that the ITU is not the appropriate body for internet governance – primarily because its decisions are made ultimately by national governments alone. The Best Bits coalition has used this week’s IGF meeting as a platform to build global consensus around the idea that internet governance must be conducted by a transparent and multi-stakeholder process with qualities of global public accountability – qualities the ITU clearly lacks. As the strongly worded statement issued by the coalition points out: “Fundamental to the framing of public policy must be the pursuit of the public interest and fundamental human rights.”

Beyond the IGF and the ITU, a lot of open questions remain about how to govern the internet in a manner that protects the rights and balances the interests of everybody around the world who uses – and increasingly depends upon – the internet. Existing multi-stakeholder institutions, like ICANN, are far from ideal and have been subject to capture by certain Western, developed-world corporate interests – challenges I recently discussed in detail over at Foreign Policy:

History has shown that all governments and all corporations will use whatever vehicles available to advance their own interests and power. The Internet does not change that reality. Still, it should be possible to build governance structures and processes that not only mediate between the interests of a variety of stakeholders, but also constrain power and hold it accountable across globally interconnected networks. Right now, the world is only at the beginning of a long and messy process of working out what those structures and processes should look like.

Unfortunately, since it’s a ‘long and messy process’, the debate on internet policy and governance tends to get short shrift from news organizations, even those with robust coverage of international news and global affairs, because it doesn’t fit cleanly into existing news “beats.” Does this story belong in the technology section, the business section, or the international news section? Foreign and global affairs correspondents, business reporters and technology journalists often have very different types of knowledge and skill sets. It is still rare to find journalists and editors who understand in a holistic way how technology and geopolitics overlap, let alone how to tell these stories in compelling ways so that their readers can understand how they are affected by the big decisions about internet governance and policy – just as they are by global trade negotiations or international security treaties.

And self-interest comes into it too. News organisations, press associations and media assistance organisations around the world have also been slow to recognize how internet governance debates will ultimately affect their own work and sustainability. If they do not seek to influence the processes and debates that will determine who shapes the future of the internet, they run the serious risk that internet standards and regulations will evolve in a manner that undermines journalistic freedom, public media, and non-commercial news outlets.

So, what can be done? Here are some concrete steps that different stakeholders can take to help improve the situation:

  • Journalists and editors need more training in how to cover internet governance and policy issues from a public interest and human rights perspective
  • Technologists, technology-focused NGOs and technology policy researchers need to find ways to frame and explain the issues in terms that journalists can understand and which broader audiences can relate to
  • The research community can provide journalists and NGOs with data and well-documented evidence of how both press freedom and business models for journalism overlap with global technology policy and internet governance debates
  • News organisations and journalists’ associations, as well as press freedom and media development organizations need to dedicate staff and resources to following and participating in the debates and processes that will determine how citizens worldwide can use the technologies on which the media itself increasingly depends
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