Many years ago the United Nations chose Tunisia, a country then well known for his oppression of journalists and control of information, to hold its World Summit on the Information Society. It received a lot of sticks for it, but in the end the summit set in stone several important principles regarding freedom of expression in cyber space and the regulation of contents on the Internet. The hundreds of stakeholders, including international organisations, governments, medias, trade unions, international community and societies came out satisfied that they did a good job.
More than half way through the WSIS mandate, the issue of control of the Internet has come back to haunt them. Many of the same stakeholders gathered again last week at the seventh annual Internet Governance Forum held in Baku, Azerbaijan (another backslider of press freedom) to try and unravel the increasing threats to the Internet.
Already the battle lines are sharply drawn between those who see freedom of expression as a fundamental human right in the digital world and what various states are doing to try and control information and ideas.
A few days before, British police in Kent raised the hackles of press freedom defenders after they arrested a man for posting a picture of burning poppy on a social networking site, on suspicion of "malicious telecommunications". A few weeks earlier, another 20-year-old UK man, Matthew Woods, was sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offenders’ institution for making a sexually explicit joke on Facebook about a missing 5-year old girl.
At the start of 2012 in a more serious case, journalist Hamza Kashgari fled his native Saudi Arabia where he faced the death penalty for tweeting a mock conversation between himself and the prophet Mohamed.
In authoritarian states, intense surveillance online leads the police, paramilitaries and militias to the doors of activists and ordinary citizens in an effort to push back against the growth of alternative networks outside their immediate control. Very often, bloggers disappear, are beaten or brutally assaulted as a result of their online post. Even in the US, federal courts started making rulings putting bloggers outside the legal protection of the historic first amendment free speech rights.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet who foresaw the “power of the Web in its universality”, could not have predicted the technological developments that allow today the easy gathering of large amount of information not only by authoritarian but also by democratic governments in the biggest mass surveillance ever operated.
Recent reports by the Open Net Initiative counted how governments censoring the Internet and digital space continue to rise from single figures to over 40 states today. It is not just China with its Great Firewall or Iran with its “Halal Internet” in construction, we now see established Western democracies such as the Nordic countries introducing national level filters or the United Kingdom preparing a draft Communications Draft Bill that would allow authorities to monitor the entire population – from e-mail to mobile calls and website tracking.
And it is not just governments. We now see overzealous companies having a go. Facebook, Twitter, Google and others have started defining the boundaries of “acceptable” speech and set chilling rules through their own terms of service and codes – in effect regulating public space, previously the preserve of governments.
The biggest threat today is the effort by several states to impose a top-down system of control. They will soon be gathering in December at the World Conference of International Telecommunications (WCIT) organised by the International Telecommunication Union (a specialised UN agency that sets standards for international telephony) and the jury is out on how many countries would now come out in the open and propose the rewriting of telecommunications regulations to incorporate regulation and control of the Internet.