Technology and governance: Challenges to freedom of expression – #SAFoE

by Richa Kaul Padte

This blog post is sixth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the 'Third South Asian Meeting on the Internet and Freedom of Expression' recently concluded in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Much of the meeting’s discussions have so far focused on freedom of expression and speech in relation to the types of content available (or censored) online. However, country perspectives from India and Nepal illustrate the ways in which the technologies of the Internet and communication networks themselves – and the ways in which they are governed – are relevant to wider issues surrounding freedom of expression.

Speaking from a Nepali perspective, president of the Internet Society (Nepal Chapter) Babu Ram Aryal talks about the registration of domain names as an important facet of having a presence and a voice on the Internet. He says, the name of a website is a means of expression… it is a unique identifier’ – it’s like having a piece of land on the Internet that is yours. Therefore, the question of who registers and renews domain names – and by extension permits a website to exist – is integral to the present discussion. If the government is solely responsible for registration, there is a risk that it may choose not to register or renew those websites it deems to be inappropriate or even politically subversive. However, Aryal questions, surely there are fears of misuse when it comes to private companies as well?’ In this manner, the issue of domain names is as pertinent to the freedom of expression online as measures of security and surveillance, despite the fact that it is rarely a considered factor in such debates.

Speaking about the role of cross border cooperation in a globalised online world, Aditya Rao, Senior Associate at the Amarchand Mangaldas law firm (India) discusses the role of MLATs (Mutual Legal Assistant Treaties) between countries. These agreements are meant to aid the legal assistance process if cases pertaining to the Internet are filed across borders. MLATs between different countries greatly vary, which means that certain legal redressals face difficult barriers. For example, the treaty between the United Kingdom and India states that information will be provided by UK-based networks if the allegation is made in an Indian court of law. However, the treaty that India has with the United States does not have such clear standards.

Speaking from the floor, Anja Kovacs from the Internet Democracy Project points out that there is a great deal of governmental frustration around MLATs, because, for example, the definition of an emergency’ in the US may be very different from its definition in India or another country.

Rao also talks about the nature of cloud computing, wherein many of the services including software, data and computation that we use are often located across various countries. As users, the breakdown of where our services are based is not made available to us, and Rao advocates the building of greater awareness around the complexities and legal difficulties such systems engender. He also advocates a user-friendly and accessible rating system, by which individuals and companies can understand which cloud computing service best fits their needs.

Providing another perspective from Nepal on how technology and Internet networks can be used to restrict the freedom of speech, speaker Suman Lal Pradhan, CEO of ISP Websurfer, Nepal, discusses the ways in which ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are used by the government as law enforcement agencies. Govenment requests and initiatives may range from asking ISPs for information to filtering content to entirely closing down the ISP – measures that tend to be exercised through the physical presence of the police rather than regulatory bodies.

Rohan Samarajiva, Chair and CEO of Sri Lanka based organisation LIRNEasia, adds that this is not simply a phenomenon found in developing countries, and that even in the US, it is found that most searches for information do not happen legally, but are just asked for and given.’ These violations by the government may become difficult to legally establish in countries where there is no law specifically dealing with an individual’s privacy.

However, KS Park from the Korea University Law School, believes that if these requests for information are being granted without the users’ permission, there must be at least some principles of law being violated. Even in countries that do not have a separate privacy law, every country represented at the meeting has a judicial or legislative law that protects people’s privacy to some degree. Park encourages people not to simply accept these violations, but to question their legality and validity.

Similarly, contributions from the floor encourage the building of active movements within civil society around these issues, as well as a greater transparency on the part of governments, service providers and private companies with regard to how an individual’s data is used, shared and controlled. This discussion around the governance of Internet technologies actively contributes to a wider understanding of the ways in which not only content, but technology, influences the right to freedom of expression in the cyber world.