Almost a year ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking the revolution in Tunisia. The transitions in the Arab world are a wake-up call to many, and have made us rethink the balance between interests and values. It was also a wake-up call to see the transformative powers of new technologies, which were put on the political agenda and are there to stay.
The United States has put the potential of an open internet and the free flow of information in closed societies at the core of its foreign policy. On 21 January, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched her Internet Freedom Strategy and said: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” I couldn’t agree more.
Then, on 18 February 2010, the first of 251,287 classified diplomatic cables were published, sparking a global debate on access to information and transparency of government documents.
The U.S. government responded by taking away Wikileaks’ domain and by banning companies from transferring donations to the whistleblowers. Furthermore, the detention of Bradley Manning – the young soldier who stands accused of releasing the classified information – caused human rights concerns from people across the world. #Cablegate and its fallout have put the US in a less credible position to lead on transparency and internet freedom.
And there are more worrying developments that seriously threaten precisely that open internet that Secretary Clinton wishes to see. Two American legislative proposals are currently under consideration in Congress. These acts (SOPA and PIPA) focus on enforcing intellectual property rights through the blocking of websites based on US court orders.
Elements of the proposals would target the heart of the internet’s global infrastructure. Such extraterritorial and extrajudicial measures affect people all over the world. Basically, European internet service providers would become subjected to US court orders or law enforcement. This undermines European laws and challenges the primary responsibilities and duties of European governments.
An open internet and the free flow of information are essential if we want the internet to be a true driver of economic growth and to improve fundamental rights and freedoms. Besides impact on our own societies, any blocking, censoring or filtering of the internet in the US or the EU makes us less credible when we speak to countries like Iran, Syria or China and undermines our efforts to lead in global internet freedom.
Europe urgently needs to work out its own internet freedom strategy and should seek global leadership.
Life and death
At the same time, there is the issue of dictatorial regimes who seem ever more ambitious in their use of technology. The technologies that can help people in fostering freedom of expression, access to information, or the sharing of documented human rights abuses are also effective as weapons.
In the hands of dictatorial regimes or their secret services, using email, Facebook or a cell phone can become a matter of life and death.
The Ben Ali regime was very skilled in tracking and tracing people’s locations, communications and information flows, and the regime of President al-Assad in Syria actually performed a cyber attack on citizens before the protests began in the streets.
Digital arms trade
Western companies play an essential role by providing the technologies that are used for repression. Most of this trade happens below the radar. This digital arms trade must stop. If Europe and the US want to lead on internet freedom, they urgently need to regain credibility by holding companies accountable.
Some steps in the right direction have been taken. Last week my proposal was adopted to establish a European Internet Freedom Fund. The fund will help to train and educate online journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders to circumvent censorship and evade cyber attacks (by their own governments).
I also pushed for an unconditional ban on the export of dangerous ICTs to repressive regimes. Last week the EU announced just such an export ban regarding Syria. We have a lot more to do.
Side with the people
No doubt there will be good speeches and interesting discussions at the Freedom Online conference in The Hague. But Foreign Ministers Clinton and Rosenthal need to practice what they preach. This means addressing companies, stopping digital arms trade, and taking responsibility.
The transitions in North Africa and the Middle East have proven that we need to stand with the populations, not with their suppressors. Let EU- and US-based technology companies choose to side with the people as well.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Radio Netherlands Worldwide