Governance, Internet and Free Speech

On September 27th, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which includes companies, non-profit groups, academics, engineers, government representatives and ordinary citizens, started in Kenya for 3 days to debate on the hot topic of future of the Internet.

During this United Nations-sponsored event, one workshop is dedicated to defining the fundamental values that inform Internet policy-makers and Internet governance arrangements. Here are some tips from Reporters Without Borders on what should be underscored, and why it matters:

Keep it global

More and more countries are building their own Intranets that resemble those of China, Burma or Iran. One factor that is really helping them to do so is the collaboration of Internet companies with repressive regimes worldwide. For example, last May, Nikolay Pryanishnikov, President of Microsoft Russia, declared that now that Microsoft Russia owns Skype in the country, he would give out the Skype codes to the Russian security services if necessary. Microsoft already signed a partnership in China with the search engine Baidu that censors its results. The new players of the World Wide Web -- led by Facebook and Twitter -- are definitely in the authoritarian regimes' line of sight. But can key Web actors prevent the Chinese and Russian governments from using their technologies for purposes of political repression? Companies can no longer fight censorship and protect their users' personal data by acting alone, and government recommendations no longer suffice. If the IGF wanted to make a difference regarding human rights there, it would support and improve publicly what already exists when it comes to companies adopting ethical behaviors.

Keep it neutral

Net neutrality is one of the main challenges when it comes to online free speech. Deciding that Internet Service Providers (ISP) can define the content of online access is definitely giving them the opportunity to select what can or can't be accessed first. Therefore, content cannot be separated from the transmission. This is why the quality of the access is as important as its access. Instead of trying to judge which technology is worse, between accessing a non-neutral (even censored) online content or not accessing anything at all, the IGF should decide upon the ways neutral Internet access can be protected and guaranteed.

Keep it real

Business and human rights are compatible. Fortunately, some companies have grasped the fact that respecting certain values is not incompatible with an increasing turnover. In March 2010, the GoDaddy Group Inc. announced before the U.S. Congress that it would stop offering its clients new Chinese domain names (ending with the suffix ".cn") because of drastic censorship measures enforced by local authorities. A few days earlier, Google, outraged over censorship and cyberattacks targeting its users' e-mail accounts, announced its decision to stop censoring the Chinese version of its search engine, Canadian-based RIM, known for its BlackBerry telephones, is attempting to resist pressures from the Saudi and Emirati governments, who want to access the encrypted data sent through the smartphones' messaging services.

But the U.N should first be clear on what the Internet does represent for its members and what should be protected. When Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, published his organization's report in May 2011, he underlined the Internet as a common space where citizens can exchange their views and virtually gather. As he phrases it, Internet is "acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression." Therefore Internet access should be protected because it is enabling user access a range of rights.

Throughout the Arab Spring, we've witnessed a tremendous number of cases where the Internet helped mobilize the masses and contributed to public service journalism and crowdsourcing. Nevertheless, the first move by governments was to shut down the Internet. Should members of the U.N who supported these actions be sanctioned for it?

If as it says, the IGF wants to build a "constitutional moment" for the Internet, then it should do a lot more by imposing future ethical regulations on governments who intentions are to muzzle information on the Web and the free flow of information.