The United Nations Human Council has issued a resolution affirming that internet freedom is a basic human right and that people have the right to freedom of expression on the internet:
The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.
The resolution is not binding and, as Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Ken Roth, says in the New York Times, it will mostly be cited for “public shaming.” Even China, whose “Great Firewall” blocks out online content including Google and Twitter, has backed the resolution in a sign, notes Roth, that it “isn’t comfortable publicly owning up to the Internet censorship regime that it tries to maintain.”
Russian Wikipedia Goes Dark
Russia, whose human rights and censorship records leave something to be desired, has also signed the resolution. Today, Russian Wikipedia has gone dark to protest a law, the Internet Act, that would allow the government to blacklist certain sites, specifically those containing child pornography, promoting teenage suicide and containing information about drugs. Wikipedia contends that the law gives the government power to “subjectively” choose which sites to censor. For today, the Russian Wikipedia site has a black line across it and a message which says the law “could lead to the creation of extra-judicial censorship of the entire internet in Russia, including banning access to Wikipedia in the Russian language.”
Internet Freedom and Censorship Also an Issue in the West
But as debates arising around the UN’s resolution reveal, Western countries are no more off the hook, says the New York Times:
The ball, in some ways, is now in the court of the technology companies that produce the tools that countries use to monitor and circumscribe their citizens on the Internet. China’s firewall uses technology from Cisco, for instance. American law-enforcement agencies routinely seek information from Internet companies; Twitter is among a handful of companies that insists on informing users when their data is sought, as it did with supporters of WikiLeaks and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Google, Twitter and other global now routinely public transparency reports to reveal how requests for takedowns they receive. Notably, the US made the most requests, as have companies including Microsoft, in the most recent report. Facebook does not publish such reports, an omission that the social media company may be called to revisit as the outrage for unexplained deletions of posts (from human rights abuses in Syria to photos of a child with Down Syndrome) accumulate.
Global internet companies must also figure out how to respond to the differing laws about referring to political figures (such as the Thai monarchy) in different countries.
What is “Freedom” on the Internet?
Whatever “internet freedom” is and means is equally a controversial topic within the US. As The Hill notes, politicians and advocacy groups from all parts of the political spectrum have turned “internet freedom” into a “rallying cry.”
But even as a 100-group coalition unveiled a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” last week and libertarian groups TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute offered a counter manifesto, a central issue lies in “converting the enthusiasm for Internet freedom into specific policy goals may prove difficult because of how differently people understand what ‘freedom’ means.” “Net neutrality” is not itself a neutral term:
Conservatives, for example, decry net-neutrality as a government takeover of the Internet, but liberals say the regulations are necessary to protect the openness of the Internet from manipulation by Internet service providers.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net-neutrality rules in 2010 that prohibit Internet service providers from slowing down or blocking access to legitimate websites.
The confusion and potential contradictions about “internet freedom” are apparent in the positions taken by conservative Republican congressman Darrell Issa. He has backed a “digital bill of rights” to protect users from “intrusive legislation” and was a vocal opponent of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was opposed by millions of internet users. But Issa is a supporter (as are Google and Facebook) of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a House bill that would grant companies the right to share more information about cyber threats with each other and with the government, a potential gross intrusion on privacy. Issa has said that CISPA would let companies better protect their systems.
In such a climate, no wonder that Russia and China can offer support for “internet freedom” too.
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