By Emily Taylor
In 2005, I came across an article in the New York Times about a funny little battle that was going on in the Internet corner of the world that no one outside of the small circle of Internet geeks seemed to understand or care about.
This article was memorable for several reasons. First, it was cogent, humorous, it rose above the dirty, confused, detail and explained why this stuff was important for all of us. Secondly, it was written by a politician. That politician was Carl Bildt.
Fast forward to this week. I was asked to moderate a couple of sessions at the Stockholm Internet Forum, and to provide some reflections at the end of the conference. This article highlights some of the themes I picked up from the two days of discussion.
The Forum was a collaborative initiative by the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the dot-se Registry, and SIDA, the Swedish Development Agency. Three government ministers participated (Foreign Affairs, Development, and ICT/Environment).
So, what did we learn and what happens next?
The Internet is a disruptive technology — disruption is not a bug it is a feature (to quote the author John Naughton) and brings with it uncomfortable dilemmas for us all as we saw vividly in the session on Human Rights and Responsible Business Practice.
> your country may have to lose out on business opportunities that others take
Countries advocating Internet freedom, whether it is the US or Sweden have to live up to their own rhetoric, and that brings costs — if you set yourself up with this role, you have to withstand propaganda attacks on your weaknesses, contradictions, and difficulties, your country may have to lose out on business opportunities that others take.
We all think that the Internet is so different, that we sometimes fail to look to other industries to find out how to approach difficult issues. Oil, gas and retail manufacturing can offer guidance on how to balance opportunities for business without selling their values down the river.
Laws — even intellectual property laws — and security are not in binary opposition to freedoms. They form part of the rules of the road in any society, but should not thwart openness or human expression. It’s a balance that the Internet challenges.
> it is unclear what accountability mechanisms exist to ensure that human rights and individuals’ privacy
The Internet, with the rise of a handful of powerful companies, has seen the emergence of what I would term an “information oligopoly” which while providing exciting opportunities for development and innovation, also carry a de facto power, and it is unclear what accountability mechanisms exist to ensure that human rights and individuals’ privacy, are safeguarded and enhanced.
There are fundamental shifts in power going on. As Alec Ross said, it’s not a good time to be a control freak. Democracy is feeling different whether you are in Tahrir Square, or protesting against SOPA in the US. Individuals have more information, and therefore more power, and we are just seeing the start of it. That is scary for many regimes, not just the usual suspects.
We learned about the impact of freedom for development. As the UN Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue commented, the potential of the Internet for development lies its difference from the ‘push’ of traditional one-to-many broadcast media. It allows for interaction, consumer “pull”, for riffing on ideas, and with that comes digital literacy and eventually, information societies. Whether that’s kids looking for Man United on social networks in Uganda, or the experience of Kenya — a beacon for what multi-stakeholder engagement and cooperation can achieve for development, innovation, and how simple self organized mechanisms such as Internet Exchange points really help by lowering costs of access, the first, essential step on the road.
How do we take the dialogue forward?
> The concept of freedom exists within a well-ordered society, with rules, norms, laws
We need to be more precise about what we mean by Internet Freedom, or Internet openness. These terms do not mean anarchy, everyone just doing whatever they like. The concept of freedom exists within a well-ordered society, with rules, norms, laws. That is where we tend to grind to a halt, not just because language like “well ordered”, “rules” and “harmony” have been misappropriated by authoritarian regimes, and are now charged, dangerous terms.
Markus Kummer of ISOC recently reflected that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enshrining the right to “seek, receive, impart, information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” reads like a definition of the Internet, even though it was written quarter of a century before the invention of TCP/IP.
There are threats, some that have been with us for a long time, like human rights abuses, use of the Internet to track down and persecute bloggers, journalists and political dissidents.
> how can the network of private contracts and AUPs which lace together Internet transactions, hope to compete with national, sovereign governments’ right to legislate?
There are also insidious threats, like our unthinking acceptance of the supremacy of national laws even when they conflict with international law, or accepted norms. Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project warns of the risks of fragmentation along national boundaries, and she may be right, but how can the network of private contracts and AUPs which lace together Internet transactions, hope to compete with national, sovereign governments’ right to legislate?
We should also remember that the success of the Internet is not preordained, or guaranteed. It may be that Carl Bildt is correct in his prediction that many or all of the Internet giants may not survive the next 20 years. It may be that the crazy, chaotic environment of disruptive innovation and creativity we are currently in the middle of will not be long lived. If we cherish these aspects of what has been created, then we have a duty not to stand by while they perish in cold, hostile environments.
The most retweeted comment in the two-day conference was “Regimes that are afraid of free information are regimes afraid of their own future.” Carl Bildt, who knows a thing or two about the Internet, said that the best response to closed systems is to flood them with networks, and with communication.
An important step in the flood of communication is for democratic countries like Sweden to take thought leadership and excavate Internet governance debates out of the “security” hole that others like China, Russia and the good olé UK seem obsessed by.