In late January 2012, thousands of people across Poland took to the streets to protest the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The treaty had already been signed in late 2011 by European Union trade negotiators and twenty-two EU member states without much media attention, but by early February anti-ACTA protests had spread to over two hundred cities across Europe. Politicians got the message. On July 4, 2012, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly against ratification. Several dozen parliamentarians held up bright yellow signs: HELLO DEMOCRACY, GOODBYE ACTA.
Europe’s rejection of ACTA was just one victory of a global movement for digital liberty that came into its own in 2012. As Chapter 7 described it, ACTA was conceived by the United States and negotiated over the course of several years—initially in secret—with thirty-four other nations. For years, debates over ACTA—and related debates over how to balance intellectual property rights and online free-speech rights—had been confined to relatively obscure and specialized communities of activists, lawyers, and academics. That has changed, as the global netizen-rights movement to counter abuses of digital power has grown from infancy to adolescence.
I ended Consent of the Networked with a call for action, and in 2012 netizens around the world proved they are willing to act, as demonstrated by the movement’s recent successes. But while we have gained momentum, we face continuing challenges in the pursuit of digital liberty that will not easily be overcome.
VICTORIES AND LESSONS
The movement’s first victory of 2012 came in late January with the defeat in the US House of Representatives of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act. If passed, SOPA would have compelled social media companies to monitor and censor users, to prevent those users from violating somebody else’s copyright. Failure to do so could have resulted in blacklisting of websites or prosecution of those sites’ owners. Both SOPA and PROTECT IP would also have empowered the US Attorney General to order the blockage of allegedly infringing websites—based anywhere on Earth.
On January 18 Wikipedia and thousands of other websites went off line for twenty-four hours to make a dramatic point about how overzealous copyright enforcement on the Internet would result in de facto online censorship in the United States and around the world. Throughout the month, millions of Americans delivered the message through e-mails, phone calls, and letters to elected representatives that their position on SOPA or PROTECT IP could be a voting issue. By January 20, over two hundred members of Congress had declared their opposition and several dozen key supporters from both parties had changed their minds in response to voter pressure. Both bills were scrapped in one of the most rapid reversals of support for a major piece of legislation in Washington on any issue in years.
Amazingly, just three months earlier the bills’ powerful Republican and Democratic sponsors—leading members of both parties in both houses of Congress—had been confident that they could garner enough bipartisan support to pass them. Intellectual property law had never been a hot media story. Copyright has always been a vital issue for the entertainment and software industries, whose donations help to fill many congressional campaign coffers, as discussed in the “Lobbynomics” section of Chapter 7, but prior to 2012, copyright had never threatened to become a serious concern for a critical mass of voters.
A broader cross section of Americans started to care about the potential free speech and privacy implications of overly broad intellectual property law only after activists joined forces with other groups scrambling to protect their interests: Internet companies (and their investors), which worried that such legislation would destroy their business; nonprofit Internet communities, such as Wikipedia, which feared untenable legal burdens; academic experts who had been trying for years to call public attention to these issues; and a group of engineers who had been involved with the Internet’s creation. This broad alliance in turn rallied loosely knit coalitions of Internet users generally concerned about censorship and surveillance, who convinced their friends to sign petitions and call their elected representatives. The bills’ supporters did their best to rally business associations and trade unions to their side, but the pro-SOPA “save Hollywood” argument could not compete with the grassroots appeal to “save our Internet.” Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler described the events of late 2011 and January 2012 as the maturation of a “networked public sphere”—through which public discourse and activism were able to break through the usual media and political gatekeepers.
In the second half of 2012, some of the key players from the anti-SOPA and anti-ACTA battles applied similar “united front”–style tactics to the global battle over Internet governance. As Chapter 13 described, an international tug-of-war has been under way for nearly two decades over whether standard-setting, coordination, and governance of core Internet technologies, resources, and operational protocols should be managed by nongovernmental, multi-stakeholder bodies or instead by governments through the United Nations. That conflict came to a head at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Dubai in December 2012, as some governments sought to use their membership in the obscure UN body to expand their own power over coordination, rule-making, and standards-setting for the global Internet.
In the late spring and early summer, Google and other major Internet industry players, the US government, and a number of European governments joined forces with a community of academic experts, policy wonks, and human rights groups who had been fighting uphill battles for years to advance human-rights concerns within the world’s global Internet governance bodies and structures. As with the intellectual property debates, this loose alliance of players brought Internet governance issues out of obscurity and onto the front pages of newspapers, and into major TV newscasts in an unprecedented way.
On the heels of the victories against SOPA and ACTA, the ITU’s plan to hold a closed-door meeting to negotiate and approve government proposals, without any formal public consultation process, appeared jarringly out of tune with the times. The two-week meeting in Dubai came under a level of global public scrutiny and criticism for which the ITU secretariat and government delegates were completely unprepared. In the end they were forced to open up their documents and meetings to the public—thanks in no small part to activists who first obtained leaked documents and other information about the negotiations and posted it all online, regardless of what the organization agreed to.
Last-ditch efforts by China, Russia, Iran, and others to transfer authority over the global domain-name system from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to the ITU, proposals to institutionalize surveillance at a global level, and initiatives to require Internet companies to pay telecommunications companies a fee when users visit their websites were all blocked—primarily by democratic governments participating in the process. In the end, however, the treaty revisions retained language referencing the Internet in ways that opponents believed amounted to vaguely defined assertions of ITU authority over aspects of Internet governance. Fifty-five countries walked away without signing, including the United States, the UK, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Qatar, Sweden, and many others—mainly but not exclusively democracies. With so many dissenters and other representatives holding off on signing indefinitely, the treaty had little chance of being effectively implemented.
Some activists saw the collapse of the ITU’s treaty-making process as a victory against efforts by authoritarian governments to make the global Internet more compatible with the surveillance and censorship regimes that they have already set up in their own countries. Others saw it as the beginning of a new phase in protracted global Internet governance battles—the outcome of which may or may not end up being a net positive for Internet freedom. Yet while both are partly right, one thing is clear: even if a bloc of governments manages to pass an international treaty or agreement, that treaty will lack legitimacy without a critical mass of support from the global digitally networked public sphere.
For all their continued contradictions and hypocrisy, particularly regarding surveillance, the United States and a number of other democracies have made strategic decisions reflecting their awareness that their political legitimacy—and even their nations’ long-term geopolitical and economic power—depends on building a positive relationship with the global commons. It is in their interest to champion governance norms and technical standards that will enable the open, globally interconnected netizen “commons” that I described in Chapter 2 to grow and thrive. It is also in the economic and trade interests of the developed Western democracy to maintain the present Internet governance system over which the UN has minimal influence.
Without civil society’s globally networked activism efforts—organizing petition drives and signature campaigns, leaking internal ITU documents, and tweeting information about closed-door proceedings— it is difficult to imagine how these governments could have succeeded to the extent that they did in throwing a wrench into ITU encroachment on Internet governance. A number of the governments that voted no in December 2012 would likely have quietly voted yes in a different era for the sake of diplomatic compromise and unity. They found it impossible to do so knowing that their own citizens as well as people from all over the world were watching online in real time and would judge them accordingly. Civil society, industry, and democratic governments have discovered that while their interests are not always fully aligned, they nonetheless will continue to need each other in future global power struggles over Internet governance.
SOPA, ACTA, and ITU encroachments on the Internet were all defeated or beaten back by three-way strategic alliances among civil society defenders of the digital commons, powerful corporations (in all three cases Google was at the forefront), and champions within government. Some version of the three-way government–industry–civil society alliance model was also a factor in a range of victories against government encroachments on Internet freedom around the world in 2012, from the UK to Lebanon, the Philippines, and Pakistan.
Where these three elements are not aligned, the cause of digital liberty is much less likely to prevail. In Russia the absence of common cause between elements of civil society, business, and government contributed to the ease with which the latter passed draconian new censorship and surveillance measures in late 2012, despite the emergence in December 2011 of an Internet-driven protest movement. In China, as Chapter 3 described, a united front between industry and government, which both have an interest in perpetuating the censorship system (the government for obvious political reasons, industry because censorship keeps out foreign competitors), is one of many reasons the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to relax that censorship anytime soon. In fact, as 2012 came to a close and a new generation of leaders moved into office, the censorship and surveillance system underwent a technical upgrade.
Furthermore, while there are many victories to celebrate in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, democracies nonetheless face a troubling problem. Alliances among civil society, industry, and political champions have clearly worked against new threats, but similar alliances have proven much more difficult to build and sustain against the creeping, slow-motion attacks on citizens’ digital freedom that started many years ago. The legal frameworks, technologies, and corporate-government relationships that facilitate opaque and unaccountable digital surveillance have grown entrenched while most of society (and their elected representatives) have failed to grasp emerging realities, let alone their long-term implications.
Rolling back established laws, regulations, and practices is much more difficult than fighting new bills or treaties before they are passed or implemented. It is much harder to suddenly demand greater transparency and public accountability in relationships between industry and government that have already become entrenched over a long period of time. The world urgently needs a strong, global multi-stakeholder coalition to fight against unaccountable surveillance—and to challenge the laws, technologies, national security norms, law enforcement practices, business practices, and social attitudes that combine to make surveillance abuses not only possible but globally pervasive. Such a coalition is critical if citizens of the democratic world hope to protect and defend their own democracies in the Internet age, and if the people of China and Iran are ever going to enjoy a free and open Internet.
On November 13, 2012, Google published its sixth biannual Transparency Report. With three years of data now published, a trend is clear: government surveillance of citizens via corporate networks is on the rise, in democracies as well as dictatorships. From July through December 2009, the first period for which Google reported information on government demands, the company says, it received 12,539 requests for user data from twenty-one governments. From January through June 2012, it received 20,938 requests from thirty-one governments. For every halfyear reporting cycle in between, requests have steadily increased. For more recent periods Google has also reported on the company’s compliance rate. In the first half of 2012 the US government made 7,969 requests for user information and Google complied with 90 percent (this includes requests made by other governments via Mutual Assistance Treaties, although that breakdown was not available). Of Brazil’s 1,566 requests, Google handed over user data for 76 percent. The South Korean government made 423 requests but Google complied with only 35 percent. Google complied with none of the Turkish government’s 112 requests. (Google does not report statistics for countries in which it has received fewer than thirty requests.)
In 2012 Twitter started to follow Google’s lead with its own transparency reporting system, as did LinkedIn, the file storage company Dropbox, and the California-based Internet service provider Sonic.net. As of this writing, no other Internet or telecommunications companies have made a public commitment to regular and systematic reporting of government demands, either to hand over user data or to remove content. Google’s report for the first half of 2012 documents a number of fraudulent requests, on top of the hundreds of requests from governments around the world with which the company refused to comply because its lawyers determined them to be sufficiently questionable, even according to the laws of the countries where the requests were made.
The less transparent companies are about their data hand-over practices, the less incentive they have to reject or challenge illegitimate government requests, which as Google’s data show happen everywhere. And yet so far no telecommunications company in any democracy has been willing to report systematically on the volume of government requests received, let alone the percentage with which it has complied. In response to a 2012 New York Times report describing how law enforcement was routinely requesting consumers’ cell phone records—sometimes with little judicial oversight and no consumer knowledge—Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, queried nine major wireless carriers for information about the volume and scope of law enforcement requests. Their replies revealed that in 2011, law enforcement officials at all levels had made 1.3 million requests for user data including requests for geolocation information, content of text messages, and wiretaps, among others. While the carriers said that all requests came with a legal warrant or were granted in situations where individuals were in immediate danger, requests included so-called cell-tower dumps, in which carriers provide all the phone numbers of mobile phone users who connect with a cell tower during a specific period of time. As Markey’s office explained, this often includes information on innocent people. He proceeded to ask the Justice Department how the government “handles, administers, and disposes of this information” and proposed a Wireless Surveillance Act that would require regular government disclosure about the volume and nature of its requests and also impose limitations on how long consumers’ personal information can be held.
Evidence is also emerging that even when US law allows carriers to withhold information from authorities until consent is received from the customer, most fail to take measures that would protect users’ privacy. In November 2012 the New York Times reported that New York police routinely subpoena call records for a phone when it is lost or stolen without first obtaining the consent of the phone’s owner. Those records tend to include data from calls made not only by the thief, but also by the victim before the theft, as well as after the phone was retrieved or after the number is transferred to a new device. This information about phone calls made by innocent people is then retained in databases for use in potential future investigations. Of all the wireless carriers operating in New York, only one, Sprint Nextel, required police to obtain written consent from the victim before it would honor the subpoenas. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Metro-PCS all complied without question. Let us hope that consumers and investors will choose to reward Sprint Nextel for standing up for user rights.
Networked communications technologies are evolving at breakneck speed. The legitimate needs of law enforcement and national defense have been so urgent that the mechanisms of oversight, transparency, and accountability necessary to keep abuse in check have failed to keep pace. Given the global reach of the technologies and companies involved, the consequences can be alarming. As they expand from their home countries into markets around the world, many US and European companies have carelessly transferred their flawed and excessively opaque law enforcement compliance practices to overseas operations including countries where free speech protections are weak or nonexistent, where judiciaries lack independence, and where the political process is not sufficiently democratic to keep abuses even vaguely within the bounds of international human rights norms. Even worse, as earlier chapters of this book have described, such companies are exporting specialized products specifically designed to help law enforcement track “criminals” to countries whose law enforcement agencies are known to include peaceful political activity and speech in their definition of “crime.”
CORPORATE REPONSIBILITY: OXYMORON OR OPPORTUNITY?
In April 2012 the Swedish investigative television program Uppdrag Granskning ran an expose of the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications company TeliaSonera and its operations in former Soviet states including Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The report quoted sources from within the company who described how its subsidiary in Azerbaijan, Azercell, installed devices known internally as “black boxes” that allow real-time blanket monitoring of all mobile traffic without court orders or warrants. According to the report, Azercell hosted an office for government security personnel on company premises. One TeliaSonera whistle-blower told a reporter, “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance. . . . There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.”
Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, is among the countries that have embraced some version of “networked authoritarianism,” a model pioneered by China and which I described at length in Chapter 3. Human rights groups have recently condemned the Azeri government for arrests of activists and journalists. Yet the Swedish government, a shareholder in TeliaSonera, expressed little concern about revelations of the company’s role in facilitating government repression in authoritarian states and took no meaningful action to address the underlying problem. In response to a reporter’s question about TeliaSonera’s operations in Belarus, where the regime conducts rampant surveillance on its opposition and where a brutal crackdown took place last year, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt replied, “In general, I think that it’s good that we participate in developing telecommunications in different countries. Having a working mobile phone system in Belarus is better for the opposition than for the regime.”
That may have been a reasonable assumption a few years ago, but as this book has described at length, across a range of countries police and militaries are embedding themselves ever more deeply into their nations’ domestic Internet and mobile wireless infrastructure, diminishing the relative advantage that political underdogs and challengers once held with their mobile phones and home computers. For companies such as TeliaSonera not to take responsibility under such circumstances is no more acceptable than if Yahoo had refused to take ethical responsibility for its business decisions in the wake of revelations in 2005 and 2006 of the company’s complicity in the arrest and conviction of Chinese dissidents—a case described at length in Chapter 9.
One of Yahoo’s responses to its problems in China was to play an active role in creating the Global Network Initiative (GNI) along with Google and Microsoft, which also came under fire around the same time for collusion with Chinese state censorship. As described in Chapter 11, the GNI requires members to commit to core principles on free expression and privacy; conduct human rights impact assessments; engage with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academic researchers on how to address the risks they face; and participate in a three-phase assessment process that verifies whether and to what extent the companies are actually implementing the principles.
In 2012 GNI’s three founding companies, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, successfully completed the first round of independent assessments. Independent assessors determined that the three companies had put in place company-wide policies and procedures so that staff would have the tools, knowledge, and support to identify and mitigate human rights risks. To receive a passing grade, the assessment results had to satisfy a board of directors representing all stakeholder groups including tough customers such as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, alongside socially responsible investors such as Calvert and Domini, which routinely challenge companies on human rights risks, as well as academics with an established research record on the role of companies in government censorship and surveillance. The second round of assessments to determine how those policies and procedures are actually being implemented was scheduled to take place in the first half of 2013. Facebook joined as an observer in the spring of 2012 and must decide one year later whether to join GNI before its one-year nonrenewable observer status expires. Throughout 2011 and 2012 GNI worked to build policy alliances between industry and civil society in the defense of Internet users’ free expression and privacy, bringing together activists and companies to strategize on problematic laws and regulations in a range of countries including Vietnam, Thailand, India, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Might TeliaSonera have acted differently in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and elsewhere if it had been a GNI member? Between 2006 and 2008 a TeliaSonera executive actually participated alongside Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft in early discussions that eventually led to the formation of the GNI. However, the company decided not to join because it claimed that the GNI was too focused on the problems of Internet companies and did not fit the needs of telecommunications companies that build network infrastructure and whose relationships with governments are operationally and historically much more intertwined.
Still, to its credit TeliaSonera did not completely stick its head in the sand. It publicly acknowledged that its operations in Azerbaijan and elsewhere faced human rights risks and threats to free expression and privacy that the company needed to do a better job of anticipating and mitigating. In July 2012 it announced a partnership with the internationally respected Danish Institute for Human Rights to support the development of a new human rights impact assessment process, which would “include freedom of expression and privacy issues and be benchmarked on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.” The company also helped bring together eleven of the world’s largest telecommunications companies—Alcatel-Lucent, AT&T, BT, France Telecom-Orange, Millicom, Nokia Siemens Networks, Tele2, Telefónica, TeliaSonera, Telenor, and Vodafone—in a series of meetings on free expression and privacy problems faced by the sector. The meetings became known as the Industry Dialogue on Telecommunications, Privacy, and Freedom of Expression. (Deutsche Telecom, which owns T-Mobile, was an early participant but later dropped out.) As of January 2013 the Industry Dialogue was in discussions with the GNI about a potential partnership that if consummated would challenge its member companies to strengthen their policy and operational commitments.
Regardless of what commitments these companies finally make, their efforts will not be credible until they engage directly and systematically with a range of stakeholders including activist communities from the countries in which they operate, as well as international NGOs and researchers who specialize in free expression and privacy issues. It is also vital that they be willing to submit to an independent assessment process with sufficient rigor that their claims about commitments, policies, and practices can actually be verified. Right now the GNI, despite imperfections and growing pains, is the only organization with any such processes in place. Whether and how the telecommunications industry chooses to act has real implications, and not only for the lives of individual dissidents, activists, and investigative journalists around the world. Whether the industry takes responsibility for its human rights obligations will affect the future of democracy, accountable governance, and social justice all over the world. In the short-to-medium term the industry is already having an impact on political power dynamics in the Middle East and Africa in the wake of the events of early 2011 that the world came to know as the Arab Spring.
JUSTICE IN THE MARKETPLACE
Across much of the Middle East and Africa, struggles for accountable governance and social justice came under renewed attack in 2012. It is clear that the Internet, mobile telephony, and social media will play an important role in that region’s political future. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey conducted across twenty countries, respondents in Arab countries were approximately twice as likely to use social media to discuss politics, community issues, and religion as respondents in the rest of the world. Less than half of Americans surveyed used social media to discuss politics and community issues. This disparity is not surprising given the array of mass media outlets and community organizations that exist in democracies. But in five Islamic countries—Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia—strong majorities relied on social media to discuss their civic and political concerns.
If the Sovereigns of Cyberspace—all of the companies whose products, platforms, and services increasingly mediate citizens’ relationships with their communities and governments—cannot do right by the world’s most politically vulnerable and exposed Internet users, the consequences for the entire human race will be, as programmers like to put it, nontrivial.
The movement to build and promote more secure, noncommercial communications tools, and train activists how to protect themselves when using commercial services, expanded dramatically in 2012 with Western governments and several companies providing funding to activist groups. But in a world where most Internet and mobile users do not consider themselves activists until they suddenly find themselves to be threatened or in trouble, those admirable efforts will never be adequate on their own.
In October 2012 in Brussels, the London-based activist group Privacy International and Google hosted a meeting of technologists and legal experts to draft what they decided to call the International Principles on Communications Surveillance and Human Rights. The goal, according to Privacy International, was “to provide civil society, industry and government with a framework against which to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.” They posted the principles online at http://necessaryandproportionate.net, launched a public consultation inviting feedback from all interested parties around the world, and organized an additional workshop with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Latin American activist groups in December 2012.
The content of the document remains in flux as of this writing, but the principles are an attempt to lay down some markers that activists and companies can use to build common ground and common strategies when negotiating with lawmakers and regulators around the world, assuming that there is a shared goal of safeguarding Internet users’ rights to free expression and privacy. They included criteria such as legality, legitimacy of purpose, necessity, proportionality, competence of the enforcement authorities, due process, user notification, transparency, and adequate oversight against abuse.
As of January 2013 only a few NGOs had signed on, and Google itself had yet to officially endorse the principles. It remained unclear whether any other companies would dare to engage with the process, let alone be prepared to stand publicly behind the final outcome that would necessarily be the product of deliberation among stakeholders from around the world. Whatever happens with the principles themselves, the effort behind them demonstrates why transparency by Internet and telecommunications companies is so important. If not for Google’s Transparency Report, the public would be in the dark about the steady upward trend in worldwide government demands for Google’s user data. The world’s netizens have a right to know whether other Internet and telecommunications companies that they depend on are experiencing a similar increase in government demands.
Of course, those government-focused surveillance principles do nothing to address a related problem—discussed at length in several chapters of this book—that exacerbates the consequences of government surveillance. While some are doing much better than others, no company is taking adequate responsibility for how their private terms of service, privacy policies, and identity requirements ultimately affect users’ political liberties in the physical world.
In the United States, activists, companies, and politicians who joined forces to defeat SOPA in early 2012 are fiercely divided over the appropriate role of government regulation in protecting Internet users’ privacy. Consumer privacy issues naturally overlap with issues of government surveillance insofar as data once collected for commercial purposes can potentially be accessed, and sometimes even purchased from data brokers on the open market, by authorities who then use it for other distinctly noncommercial, law enforcement, and national security purposes.
Europe has become the battleground over the extent to which governments should be allowed to regulate Internet companies to protect citizens from abuses or negligence by those companies. Activists seeking to force Facebook to abide by European privacy laws argued that the changes they sought would protect not only European Internet users, but social media users in the Middle East who rely heavily on Facebook to inform and mobilize their communities. In December a German data protection commissioner operating in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein ruled that Facebook’s real-name policy violates the German Telemedia Act, which requires service providers to allow users to communicate and conduct transactions anonymously.
As 2012 came to an end, regulators in both Europe and the United States were also considering whether to punish Google for allegedly abusing its market dominance to manipulate search results in favor of its own products and services, at the expense of its rivals. Free-market champions, such as the Economist, argued strongly against increased government regulation of the world’s Internet giants, on the grounds that fierce market competition among Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon would ultimately constrain companies from abusing Internet users’ rights because the market would punish them for doing so. Certainly regulation is problematic, not least because it cannot keep up with technological and social change and it is often subject to capture by special-interest lobbies. That said, the market constrains bad behavior by companies only when consumers and investors are adequately informed about what companies are doing—both internally and in relationship to governments. The market currently lacks such information.
If all telecommunications companies running broadband and wireless services, plus Facebook and other social networking platforms, were to join Twitter and Google in releasing country-by-country data about government censorship and surveillance demands they receive, we would have made the first real step toward having an informed marketplace. Perhaps then the global commons would wake up to what is truly happening, and act as they did with the ITU, ACTA, and SOPA.
Citizens of democracies, companies that understand that they can build long-term global value for their brand by earning trust with their users, and politicians who understand the need to protect and strengthen the digital commons (even if mainly out of self-interest) must unite to demand a national and global reconsideration of already deeply entrenched surveillance laws, technologies, and corporate practices. There needs to be a more robust public debate about the facts of digital surveillance in democracies, the implications for accountable governance and social justice—and what can be done now that the surveillance state has already been allowed to reach too far, too fast. That debate requires data and information that companies as well as democratic governments have so far been reluctant to share. Companies claiming to support a free and open Internet and that benefit from the existence of a robust global digital commons are doing the commons no favors unless and until they agree to publish systematic and useable information about their relationships with governments.
Furthermore, governments that want their citizens to believe that their support for global Internet freedom and citizens’ digital rights is genuine—and not shallow political rhetoric—must make sure that laws are not preventing companies from releasing such information. All governments that intend to keep calling themselves “democratic” with a straight face should publish their own transparency reports so that engaged citizens can see enough of the whole picture that they can grant or withdraw consent for, or divest from, the surveillance systems and procedures governments and companies have built. Until these things happen, Western democracies and Western companies will remain net exporters of surveillance technologies, legal norms, and business practices that facilitate political abuse of surveillance powers by repressive regimes—and that will ultimately corrode existing democracies.
Getting governments and companies to do these things will make the fights against ACTA, SOPA, and ITU Internet incursion look trivial in comparison. The global movement for digital liberty spread its wings and took flight in 2012, but the real tests of its strength and agility have yet to come.