Mediapolicy.org: Why internet governance matters for press freedom

(This blog post was first published at Mediapolicy.org, 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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Foreign Policy: The Innocence of YouTube

Image courtesy Ramy Raouf

I have co-written an article with Susan Benesch, Director of the Dangerous Speech Project at the World Policy Institute about what the “Innocence of Muslims” video incident teaches us about the dark side of social media’s power, and the questions it raises about how social media platform should balance the need to defend and protect free speech with their efforts to limit the destructive impact of hate speech. Here are the first few paragraphs:

In 2006 Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas posted a video online of police sodomizing a bus driver with a stick, leading to the rare prosecution of two officers. Later, Abbas’s YouTube account was suddenly suspended because he had violated YouTubes guidelines banning “graphic or gratuitous violence.” YouTube restored the account after human rights groups informed its parent company Google that Abbas’s posts were a virtual archive of Egyptian police brutality and an essential tool for reform. After the Abbas case, Google concluded that some graphic content is too valuable to be suppressed, even where it is most likely to offend.

More recently, the Innocence of Muslims video led Google to bend its rules in the other direction, temporarily blocking the video in Egypt and Libya “given the very sensitive situations in these two countries,” according to a statement given to reporters, even though those governments had not requested censorship and it was not violent, graphic, or directly hateful enough to violate YouTube’s guidelines banning gratuitously violent images and hate speech. (The video has since been quietly unblocked in both countries.) From the beginning, Google kept the video up in most of the world — and denied a request from the White House to remove it completely, but blocked it in countries including India and Indonesia where it has been ruled illegal, in keeping with Google policy to abide by its own rules as well as national laws.

In the crush of events, Google’s decision was the best it could have done under the circumstances. Yet little of the rationale behind Google’s decisions has been offered directly to YouTube users. Google has made a laudable public commitment to free expression and does a good job of disclosing how it responds to government demands around the world. Given the Internet giant’s power to shape global public discourse, it should be equally transparent about its private governance of global speech.

Click here to read our ideas for how that might work.

Foreign Policy: The United Nations and the Internet: It’s Complicated

Last week Foreign Policy ran my latest piece about the UN’s controversial relationship with the Internet.

On Aug. 2, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the White House to stop an obscure U.N. agency from asserting greater control over the Internet. It is the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States,” the lawmakers affirmed, “to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”

President Barack Obama’s administration sometimes finds itself at odds with members of Congress who oppose nearly everything the United Nations does on principle. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently complained of “black helicopter” conspiracy theorists harming the national interest after they blocked U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty for the second time.

When it comes to the Internet, however, Congress, the White House, technology companies, and civil liberties groups are all on the same page: All agree that the United Nations — a body representing the interests of governments — should not be given control over a globally interconnected network that transcends the geography of nation-states. The Internet is too valuable to be managed by governments alone. Yet there is less agreement over how well the alternative “multistakeholder” model of Internet governance is working — or whether it is really serving all of us as well as it might.

Click here to read the rest.

Foreign Policy: Ruling Facebookistan

Photo courtesy Max Schrems.

This image is a photoshopped composite created by Max Schrems, a Vienna-based activist and law student quoted in my latest piece for Foreign Policy about Facebook. As the tag line explains: “The world’s largest social networking site has a population nearly as large as China or India’s. And the natives are getting restless.” Here is how the piece begins:

At 6 p.m. Taipei time on Friday, June 1, Ho Tsung-hsun was suddenly shut out of his Facebook account. When he tried to log back in, a message in a red box announced: “This account has been disabled.” Ho, a veteran activist and citizen journalist on environmental and social issues in Taiwan, immediately took a picture of the message, then wrote an angry blog post on a Taiwan-based citizen journalism platform. He insisted that he had not violated any of the site’s community guidelines. Furthermore, he wrote, “the information I’ve collected and the Facebook groups that I’ve created and maintained all disappeared, which has caused inconvenience to my work and interpersonal relationships.”

Later that night, Ho’s account was restored — also without explanation. As it turned out, a number of Taiwanese politicians and activists hadall experienced similar problems on the same day. Angered by what seemed like an act of arbitrary punishment against people who were not violating the site’s rules in any way that they themselves could discern, Taipei City Councilor Ho Zhi-Wei wrote an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook — now a publicly listed company — “certainly has public responsibilities for public welfare.”

The incident underscored the extent to which people around the world have come to rely on Facebook for political activism and discourse — from the Green Movement in Iran, to revolutionaries in Egypt, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Facebook is not a physical country, but with 900 million users, its “population” comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people’s online activities and identities.

In apparent recognition that it faces real human rights risks and responsibilities, Facebook recently became an observer member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting core principles on free expression and privacy in the Internet and telecommunications industries. Whether the company ultimately joins as a full member, committing to uphold these principles and be held publicly accountable to them, will be a key test of its core values. Meanwhile, the postings, pages, likes, and friend requests of millions of politically active users have helped to make Zuckerberg and colleagues very rich. These people are increasingly unhappy about the manner in which Facebookistan is governed and are taking action as the stakes continue to rise on all sides.

Click here to read the rest.

Foreign Policy: The War for India’s Internet

Protests against Internet censorship are taking place this weekend in several cities across India. People are already posting photos and updates to Twitter. Follow the #opindia hashtag keep abreast of latest developments.

On Wednesday Foreign Policy published my latest commentary on The War for India’s Internet. Why does this war matter for the rest of the world? I explain:

Escalating political and legal battles over Internet regulation in India are the latest front in a global struggle for online freedom — not only in countries like China and Iran where the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by autocratic regimes, but also in democracies where the political motivations for control are much more complicated. Democratically elected governments all over the world are failing to find the right balance between demands from constituents to fight crime, control hate speech, keep children safe, and protect intellectual property, and their duty to ensure and respect all citizens’ rights to free expression and privacy. Popular online movements — many of them globally interconnected — are arising in response to these failures.

Only about 10 percent of India’s population uses the web, making it unlikely that Internet freedom will be a decisive ballot-box issue anytime soon. Yet activists are determined to punish New Delhi’s “humorless babus,” as one columnist recently called India’s censorious politicians and bureaucrats, in the country’s media. Grassroots organizers are bringing a new generation of white-collar protesters to the streets to defend the right to use a technology that remains alien to the majority of India’s people.

Click here to read the full piece.

Foreign Policy: Google Confronts the Great Firewall of China

Last week I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy analyzing Google’s decision to roll out a new feature warning Chinese Internet users if they type a search term that could trigger censorship by the government’s network-level “Great Firewall.” In a nutshell:

For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to “improve the search experience in mainland China.” Users are given the option to “refine their searches without the problem keywords” in order to “avoid connection problems.” What Google executives won’t discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government’s censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.

Read the whole piece here.

Meanwhile, in the week since it was published there have been some developments and reactions worth noting. Google has declined to publish a list of all the characters and phrases it has found likely to trigger censorship. But that did not stop different groups from reverse-engineering the list. It is now available on greatfire.org (explanation in English) and atgfw.org (explanation in Chinese).  It also didn’t take long for the engineers working on the Great Firewall to ramp up the arms race by another notch, blocking Google’s nifty pop-up alerts warning users about censored terms. Here is how the anonymous team at greatfire.org, a website that tracks Chinese Internet censorship from within China, reported on the situation:

Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript filethat contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google’s next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China.

Independent Beijing-based technology researcher Dave Lyons, who I interviewed for my piece, has a more cynical take about Google and its motivations over at the rectified.name blog:

While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] [LiJiang, in Yunnan Province] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] [MianJiang ZhiXing, the name of a hotel] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Does CISPA Have Sufficient Safeguards?

Mike Rodgers, Republican Representative from Michigan and Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, has responded to my article published on the Foreign Affairs website last month. In my essay, I argued that surveillance technologies and practices originating in the United States are undermining the Obama administration’s “Internet freedom” policy. He objected strongly to my critique of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which recently passed the House under his co-sponsorship, accusing me of repeating what I had read on Twitter instead of reading the actual bill. I responded. The full exchange can be found here.

WIRED UK: Government and the net serve us, not vice versa

The UK print edition of WIRED is running a piece that distills my core argument from the book into “manifesto” form. An excerpt:

We have come to depend on digitally networked platforms, services and devices for almost all aspects of our lives, including our relationship with our physical governments. But these technologies are created, owned and operated mainly by a private sector whose decisions are driven primarily by business considerations, then further shaped by government regulation. It is important for netizens to have access to non-commercial, non-governmental and open-source digital tools, services and spaces that we can build, shape, use and encrypt. But this alone will not solve the problem of government or corporate abuse of power through digital networks.

Despite some activists’ utopian hopes to the contrary, the reality is that governments and companies are going to remain intertwined with our digital lives — for the same reasons that they are part of most people’s physical lives. Citizens continue to demand government help in fighting cybercrime, defending children from stalkers and bullies, and protecting consumers. And it could be argued that the world’s experiments with communism during the last century showed that economies without private enterprise lack innovation.

It is therefore urgent that we — the netizens of the world — do everything in our power to constrain the abuse of power and defend human rights on the corporate- and government-dominated internet, even as we work to build our own independent enclaves and tools when and where we can.

Read the whole thing here.

Foreign Policy: The Rise of Europe’s Private Internet Police

This week in Foreign Policy I examine the debate in Europe over whether and how private Internet companies should be expected to police people’s activities on the Internet. An excerpt:

European governments may not have intended to create a “privatized police state,” but that is what digital rights activists in Europe warn is happening, due to growing government pressure on companies to police themselves. As Joe McNamee, director of the Brussels-based nonprofit European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI), puts it, “We are sleepwalking further and further along a road on which we’ve decided that our right to communication and privacy shall be put in the hands of arbitrary decisions of private companies.”

Read the whole commentary here.

Does Internet Activism Work?

The Cato Institute’s online publication Cato Unbound is running a discussion about the effectiveness of Internet activism. Libertarian thinker and writer Berin Szoka argues that the Internet does make activism easier, but it can also be manipulated by governments. My response, “Internet Activism? Let’s Look at the Specifics” unpacks some of the offline, political, and economic factors behind the success and failure of different online movements. Ironically, I conclude: “Activism is urgently required—nationally and globally—to ensure that the Internet remains compatible with activism.”