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The internet has become not just a means for mass communication, but also a testing ground for new legislation. Many states have attempted to incorporate the internet into legal frameworks, usually under the pretense of increasing security for end users. In reality, however, internet security has become an excuse for increasing censorship and restricting freedom of speech. Digital.Report spoke to human rights activist, Alexei Kozlyuk about these issues in a recent interview:

DR: Is information freedom possible on the internet?

AK: The freedom to search, receive and publish information is the cornerstone of the modern internet. Last year was the 20th anniversary of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. This was one of the first political manifestos on internet freedom: “We are creating a world where anyone anywhere can express themselves, no matter how unusual they are, without the fear of being silenced or forced to conform.” Today, in an era of online surveillance, controlled by large corporations, with attempts by governments to draw digital boundaries, these ideas of internet freedom might seem naïve. Yet it is too early to say that we have lost freedom online.

Internet freedom is often positioned in contradiction to security, making users chose between the two. This dilemma is an oversimplification that manipulates the issue. Not all initiatives to control the internet actually protect users from threats. For example, plans to limit access to reliable encryption tools under the pretense that extremists and criminals were using them, despite the fact all online financial transactions and personal information are also protected by these same methods. Any deliberate vulnerability introduced into encryption algorithms will put users in danger, especially regular users who will be helpless against attackers.

DR: Will internet freedom lead to negative consequences, such as the spread of harmful content?

AK: Unfortunately, almost all ground-breaking ideas in technology can be used for good, as well as bad. On the internet, it is, of course, easier to distribute content online without government control. This can include harmful information as well. Let’s define what ‘harmful’ means. There are international standards on information freedom, formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the emergence of the internet did not make them any less significant. Information freedom is not absolute and allows several exceptions.

For example, content inciting violence can be prosecuted, and the right to freedom of speech cannot prevent this. Fueling hatred also falls under exceptions to the right. Not one country in the world, will protect or support one’s right to free speech in order to spread child pornography. However, there are less obvious examples. In each country, there is a different understanding about which information should be restricted. Even if we simply take cultural and legal traditions, for example, differences in approaches in the European Union and the US, we will see that even here there is no universal formula. The first amendment to the American constitution guarantees the freedom to all forms of expression, here you will not be prosecuted for Holocaust denial. At the same time in the European Union, more and more statements can be judged as hate speech and may be limited. Such differences can be stronger between authoritarian and democratic governments. That, which is considered normal political discourse in democratic nations, can be prosecuted in authoritarian states.

In Belarus, there is an active debate on the limits of what is permissible in cyberspace. For now, the government uses primitive tools to combat illegal content. The blocking of hundreds of websites – a drop in the ocean of information – may create the illusion of control over the situation for some officials, but in reality, does not affect the actual state of affairs in any way. The problem lies in the fact that it is not only drug trafficking and pornographic websites that are blocked, social media also falls under such restrictions, for political reasons. Thus, the state undermines public confidence in its own ability to regulate the distribution of dangerous information in a fair and legal way.

DR: Who in your opinion, should determine the degree of freedom allowed on the internet and what laws should they implement?

AK: The question now is not who should determine the degree of freedom online, but who can do this objectively. And if you do not live in China, then it is probably not the government. Although in recent years, many governments have been actively trying to regulate the internet.

Regarding standards and laws, there is a clear answer: the rights we have offline, must also be guaranteed online. However, on this issue, we are again faced with the unwillingness of the government to adhere to universal freedom of information, and practical difficulties of creating government boundaries on the Internet.

Internet activists in the 1990s believed that self-regulation by internet users could cope with the threat of dangerous information better than any government. Internet forums have their own rules for conducting discussions and mechanisms for control over content, and often the users themselves control these. Social networks such as Facebook or YouTube rely not so much on an army of moderators, but primarily by flagging from users.

Users flag content that the terms of service prohibit, and if the flag is confirmed, the dangerous content will be removed. This mechanism does not always work perfectly, but for many it seems like a good alternative to government control. If you read the existing terms of service for social networks, it becomes obvious that they are based on international standards and country laws where the service operates.

At the same time, national bans that directly violate freedom of information are ignored by social networks. It would seem that here is the answer, but not everything is so bright on closer inspection. First, social networks belong to private corporations and their mechanisms for content control are not transparent. The user does not have the ability to defend their rights, which are guaranteed in democratic states. Second, there are situations when the internet giants make agreements with individual countries on special conditions, so as not to lose market share. In the end, it’s just business.

DR: Who should control the internet – the users or the government?

AK: The Internet governance model is still a debatable issue. The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, warned at the outset against any state intervention, proclaiming cyberspace to be regulated by its community of users. “On behalf of the future, I ask you from the past, to leave us alone,” the internet pioneers appealed to government, “We did not invite you. You do not know us, you do not understand our world.”

The other extreme is the idea to pass responsibility of answering all questions about the development of the internet to the International Telecommunication Union, which is an intergovernmental organisation, and therefore expresses the will states. Fortunately, not all countries see it as promising and do not support this approach. Therefore, we do not have to fear that the future Internet will depend on the will of Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with no free internet according to the annual reports of Freedom House.

DR: Can state bodies be considered monopolists in the right to manage the internet in their countries?

AK: Let’s also not forget that the management of the Internet occurs at different levels. Content issues are the uppermost layer, and there are physical infrastructure and protocols that support the functioning of the network. At each level, the influence of actors on decision-making is different. Naturally, the state is able, if desired, to monitor the laying of cables on its territory, issue licenses to service providers, and limit international data traffic. All this gives the state a limited, but in some cases, effective set of monitoring tools, up to the complete disconnection of the Internet on its territory.

Some governments actively use such methods: over the past two years, deliberate network shutdowns have been recorded in more than 30 countries. The state’s potential to selectively block and filter information on the internet is not so impressive. The introduction of blocking systems, and increased filtering of traffic requires a lot of money. Conversely, circumventing these blocks is free and easy. Moreover, large-scale blocking negatively affect network stability.

In some areas of internet governance, the capacity of States is minimal. Most of the standards and protocols that ensure the internet works are developed by non-governmental organizations; IAN, ICANN, ISO, W3O, IETF, WHATWG, RIPE NCC among others, are nongovernmental organisations that play a key role in the development of a global network. Their positions largely determine which surveillance or censorship tools will be at the disposal of governments. Imagine how convenient it would be for the government of Turkey to take away domain names from popular independent media, but in the current situation this is simply not possible.

DR: Is it possible to build systems of internet governance without the participation of the government?

AK: The possibility of an internet governance system without state participation in theory could become real without linking the network infrastructure to a specific territory. A network of satellites in international space providing free internet access to everyone on earth is an interesting case to fantasize about

But this is just a dream, and the reality is that all interested parties must look for a way to jointly solve problems in cyberspace. And the state in this process acts as one of the stakeholders along with business, civil society, academic and technical communities. The current model of internet governance, based on the involvement of all stakeholders, took shape in two phases at the World Summit on the Information Society (in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunisia). This model is used in the activities of all major organisations. A key meeting is the annual Forum on Internet Governance (IGF), which is run under the aegis of the UN and gathers representatives from different regions, countries, and sectors. IGF 2017 is currently in progress in Geneva.

Besides the global IGF, there are national and regional initiatives, which are a platform for discussion between local actors. For example, in May 2017, Belarus hosted its second national forum, organized by hoster.by, the hosting provider and technical administrators of the .by and .bel domains, the human rights organization Human Constanta and the Operational Analytical Center under the President of the Republic of Belarus.

DR: Has the internet changed people’s perception on freedom of speech and personal freedom, and if so, how?

AK: Undoubtedly, the Internet has changed and changes our ideas about many things. This includes both information freedom, and the protection of information and privacy. In the analog era, we had a completely different model of production and consumption of information. The model was vertical, that is, information was given to us through mass means, to some extent under the control of the government. Now this concept disappears, there are only media. Information can be generated by users like us or by professional writers, or algorithms. We receive information that circulates globally. Standards of freedom of speech have remained unchanged since 1948, but only now emerges the possibility to make them truly universal.

However, in order not to be too optimistic, it is worth considering the reverse effect. The global dissemination of information in some traditional societies is perceived as an invasion of their way of life and a threat to morality. Being unable to take full advantage of the fourth information revolution, they are exposed to fundamentalism and extremist ideas. The reduction of the “digital divide” between the global North and the global South will become increasingly urgent.

Об авторе

Владимир Волков

Белорусский журналист, автор многочисленных публикаций по развитию телекоммуникационной отрасли в Беларуси и России. Работал в "Белорусской деловой газете", информационном агентстве БелаПАН и белорусском портале TUT.BY. Занимается исследованиями в области информационных коммуникаций, преподаватель института журналистики Белгосуниверситета.

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