Internet freedom


We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, gives a personal introduction

The internet has made many of us dramatically more free and able to express ourselves, and to receive and impart information and ideas. That freedom is neither perfect nor secure. Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles abuse it. Governments and corporations limit it - sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. We, the netizens, need to be on the lookout for illegitimate encroachments on this and all other forms of communication.

The engineers and visionaries who originally developed the internet designed it so that “packets” of information could travel across the world, from computer A to computer B, by thousands of alternative routes. They proclaimed the “end-to-end principle”. This comes in several variants, but basically it suggests that the network that takes packets of data from one end to the other should not discriminate between them. Complexity, discrimination and intelligent choices should be concentrated at the endpoints. What some of the pioneers called “dumb pipes” are just what we need.

Later this was elaborated into a more general principle known as “net neutrality”. Behind this phrase are complex technical issues of what is called the architecture of the internet. The most radical version of net neutrality suggests that there should be no discrimination at all. Whether it is a simple text email or a bandwidth-devouring pornographic movie, the internet service providers – which actually own and operate the internet’s physical infrastructure, including the cables over land and under oceans – should deliver that content equally, without fear or favour. More nuanced versions of net neutrality allow for “reasonable traffic management”, but would not permit network operators such as Comcast or Verizon to exclude or slow down offerings (such as cable TV channels) that compete with ones in which they have a commercial interest. Nor should they privilege those for which others will pay more.

In a worldwide network almost entirely operated by private powers, there is a constant tension between net neutrality and the profit motive. To understand more on this complex subject, you can watch this explanation by cyberlaw guru Larry Lessig; read this characteristically provocative review article by Evgeny Morozov; or, to dig deep, look at the two books he discusses, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch and Barbara van Schewick’s Internet Architecture and Innovation.

It was not preordained that the internet would develop this way. If the Russian military or Iranian ayatollahs had invented it, it would have looked quite different; so different, in fact, that we might not recognise it as the internet. Nor is it preordained that it will remain this way. Many states, mainly for political reasons, and companies, mainly for commercial ones, have already eroded the original dream. Unremarked by most of us, there is a power struggle going on behind our computer screens and inside our mobile devices. If we want electronic communication to give us the enhanced freedom of expression that it potentially can, we need to understand what is going on.

Most people know about censorship by national “firewalls”. Information and ideas flow into a country through the cables and wireless networks of a limited number of intermediaries: internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies and the like. Governments say to them, “Block this, filter that. If you don’t, you may be prosecuted or closed down.” In the most obvious version of blocking, which I have experienced in Iran, a warning sign – in a triangle, like a traffic hazard warning sign – pops up to tell you this website has been blocked. In China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Turkey you get a variety of different, more or less euphemistic messages. If you find a site is blocked in a particular place, you can report this to the Herdict monitor – and see whether other people are having the same experience.

But outright blocking is only the crudest form of control. These days, states have more sophisticated methods. They pump out alternative, often false or distorted versions to top your search results and fill your Inbox. They arrange for “denial of service” attacks against websites they don’t like. They legally or illegally gain access to email accounts, spy on searches, watch what individual users are saying and to whom. And then, in an entirely old-fashioned way, they may imprison people for exchanging information or speaking their minds.

Western democratic governments denounce these practices. The US government officially supports the development of circumvention technologies to get around authoritarian firewalls. But Western governments themselves block, filter and spy on internet and phone users, for what they regard as good purposes: averting terrorist attacks, combatting cybercrime, stopping paedophiles, protecting privacy and, in the case of many European countries, censoring hate speech. Sometimes the right hand of government is fighting what the left hand is promoting. WikiLeaks used a partly US government-funded circumvention technology, Tor, to enable whistleblowers to spill US government secrets.

These public powers are only half the story. The way communication technologies have developed means that a relatively small number of private (or semi-private) companies also have a lot of power to determine what you do or do not see, read or hear. Google and Facebook, Baidu and Rostelecom, Comcast, Microsoft, Verizon, China Mobile, Apple: each sets limits to what its users can receive and impart. Partly they do this in response to the laws or political orders of the countries in which they operate – to which some are more accommodating than others. (In 2004, the Beijing office of Yahoo notoriously supplied Chinese authorities with the email details – real name and contents – of a journalist called Shi Tao; as a result, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.) But these private powers also do it in pursuit of their own values, editorial standards and commercial interests. For the reality of global free expression, what Google does is more important than what Germany does.

In the clash-of-giants story of Google versus China, Google came out on the side of free speech versus oppressive political power. However, as the predominant search engine in many countries – witness the English-language usage: we don’t “search for it”, we “Google it” – Google itself has enormous potential power to limit or distort free speech. At the moment, for example, Google proactively censors child pornography and helps law enforcement agencies to track down paedophiles. Most of us think that’s a good thing. But what if a different leadership at Google, some years hence, decided to go after a different group of people – perhaps a group that the US government also frowned upon? The American writer Eli Pariser quotes a Google search engineer reflecting on the company’s famous motto: “Don’t be evil”. “We try really hard not to be evil,” said this Google insider, “but if we wanted to, man, could we ever!”

There are many other ways in which private powers can and do limit or shape our freedom of electronic communication. For example, they make deals so that people can pay for their ideas, messages or products to be delivered faster than other people’s, or show up higher on your screen. And a libertarian free marketeer might say: what’s wrong with that?

You think it’s your phone, your Kindle, iPad or laptop, but the manufacturer and/or operator still has remote access to it, and can view and store stuff from it at your bedside while you sleep. One fine day in July 2009, some customers of found that their copy of George Orwell’s 1984 had simply disappeared from their Kindle. (Perhaps they were just reading the famous passage about the so-called “memory hole”, into which documents were consigned for permanent destruction at the behest of Big Brother.) These information and communications companies also hold vast amounts of highly personal information on us. For more on the threats to privacy that can pose, see the discussion on Principle 8.

Only the most libertarian cyberutopian would argue that there should be no restrictions at all. For example, in today’s world there is almost universal support for blocking access to websites advocating child abuse. Cybercrime is now a multi-billion dollar business, exploiting the openness of the internet. Terrorists recruit online.

So our second draft principle does not damn all restrictions; it talks carefully of illegitimate encroachments. But where should we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate? After all, not a few Chinese regard their authorities’ control of the internet in the interests of “social harmony” as legitimate. Who should draw the line? And how? How far can we trust powerful, profit-oriented companies to regulate themselves? How far should we rely on the legal systems of individual sovereign states? What role should be played by international agencies? Is it right that domain names are assigned by a California-registered not-for-profit corporation called ICANN rather than an intergovernmental organisation? Is the UN’s Internet Governance Forum anything more than a giant waffle-chamber? For a detailed, nuanced consideration of the issues relating to freedom of expression on the internet, read UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue’s report here.

Like all our draft principles, this one begins with the word “We”. It suggests that we, the citizens and netizens of the world, can do something active: “We defend…”. But how can we? First, we need to understand what’s going on. There are some excellent places to start online. Try, for example, the websites of the Berkman Centre at Harvard University, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Open Net Initiative, the Chilling Effects project, and the European Digital Rights Initiative.

Then we need to work out what we think should be the limits to free expression online or on-phone. This involves discovering what other people think, discussing with them, and seeing what we can agree on – and on what we still disagree. This website is here for that.

If we think something is wrong, we can lobby our governments to change their laws, regulations and practices. We can also attempt to influence the international bodies that in theory regulate these things. There’s also a host of good NGOs, which analyse the issues and lobby both governments and international bodies. An extensive list of such organisations in many countries, and updates on recent developments, can be found on IFEX.

As important is to make our influence felt on those private powers. We are, after all, their customers. If we never used their services, they would not exist. Sometimes, this can just be a matter of using the options they already give us – tucked away somewhere on the preferences menu. But it can also mean public pressure, such as the customer response that forced Google to change invasive parts of Buzz (and later subsume it in Google+) and Facebook to abandon its Beacon. Or switching to another service provider and publicising the reason why.

There are also technical things we can do ourselves. The EFF website has some good suggestions in this respect. The Berkman Centre is working on a project to ensure that information we place online can not simply be “disappeared” by public or private powers that don’t like it – for example by establishing mutual agreements to mirror each other’s content. There are great powers, both public and private, at work on the internet, as on all other forms of communication – but millions of individual netizens are a great power too.


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