ifreedom - ihope

Freedom Online Conference - The Hague

“What is the internet that we hope to create?” That question, posed by Ben Wagner, was answered by a multitude of voices from government, business, academia, and civil society: an internet that is open and maintains the principles of human rights. At the Freedom Online conference (or iFreedom) held in the Netherlands, several representatives from these sectors were present to discuss what governments can do to protect human rights online, how to support bloggers and cyber dissidents, and how companies ensure freedom online. Below are some of the key highlights from this event. 

The event started with a welcome by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Uri Rosenthal opened the conference, stating that freedom online is an extra dimension of freedom of speech, a fundamental freedom in democracy. Rosenthal points out that old censorship techniques are still continuing in many countries, and “we should not make their life easier by providing them with filter technology.” He points out that “tight control on the internet impinges on our freedom of speech, association and assembly. And it means that violations of other human rights are kept away from us.” Secretary Clinton’s keynote speech followed, and echoed many of the themes addressed in her earlier speeches on internet freedom. She states that all human are entitled to freedom of speech “whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an internet chat room” and that we must “protect the internet itself from plans that would undermine its fundamental characteristics”, as fragmenting the global internet would change the landscape of cyberspace by creating “digital bubbles” instead of meaningful connections between internet users.

The following panel featured Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Bernard Dijkhuizen, and Tarik Nesh-Nash (moderated by Joris Luyendijk). One of the most memorable statements to come out of this panel was "in most western countries, 'oppression' is an abstract concept". Throughout the event, the cases of Razan Ghazzawi, Chiranuch herself, Amjad Baiazy, and many other digital activists under threat were mentioned, perhaps to move digital repression from the “abstract” to a reality for a global audience.

Day two of the event consisted of several panel discussions, the first of which being a discussion on the role of governments in online freedom. Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs in Sweden, stated that the EU must work with the US and other nations to build a new network of freedom alliances, a continuation of actions to create Internet Freedom as an emerging norm. In addition, Eduardo Bertoni (Executive Director of CELE, Argentina) said that the government should act with CARE: Coordination of policies, Apply international standards and Regulate the internet with responsibility. The second panel, on protection of bloggers and cyber dissidents, the biggest threat to digital activists is fear. Fear due to constant surveillance, compromised communications and networks, and limited legal protections, as pointed out by Karen Reilly from the Tor Project and Brett Solomon from Access. Solomon proposed that bloggers should have the same protections as journalists and companies.

The third panel on corporate responsibilities pointed out that there are many actions needed from companies to protect consumers of technology. As Solomon stated, “human rights is embedded in code”. Bob Boorstin from Google pointed out that we should be most concerned with companies that were not present at this meeting, and therefore may not be considering human rights in their business model. He went on to say that companies should be responsible for fixing mistakes rapidly, and continue to find better approaches in their technologies. Han ten Broeke from the Dutch Parliament stated that legislators should be responsible for stopping propogation of harmful technologies (such as “censorware”) by treating them the same way as they do the export of arms, and that there should be the deployment of “quick reaction money” and establishment of a “protection laboratory” to help cyber dissidents mitigate and escape a variety of threats faced by them.

Numerous mechanisms to regulate appropriate business practices, such as the Ruggie Framework and the Global Network Initiative were mentioned as guidelines that companies should adopt, and that all users should have their rights maintained and protected in their use of new technology, with the support of like-minded governments. We here at NDI fully understand the power of technology for citizens, but also the potential risks technology can create for its users. We look forward to seeing the discussions as this conference move from talk to action, and create an internet that can uphold democratic principles.