Advancing global Internet freedom

March 3, 2009

Leslie Harris — Leslie Harris is the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC. The views expressed are her own. —

In the wake of troubling reports as recently as last year that Western companies were assisting China with Internet censorship and the unmasking of cyber-dissidents, governments around the world seemed poised to regulate the conduct of Internet companies. Lawmakers appear to have stepped back from those efforts, but the challenges of advancing global Internet freedom remain.

The Global Online Freedom Act, drafted in the U.S. Congress, would have made it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments in cases where that information could be used to punish dissent. The bill produced a firestorm of controversy. Human rights groups campaigned for swift passage, while the tech industry scrambled to stop the bill, which they viewed as a global eviction order from many difficult but emerging markets. At the same time, several members of the European Parliament proposed a European version of the measure, taking the accompanying controversy global.

Now policymakers seem far less certain that global Internet freedom will be served by imposing harsh mandates on Internet companies that provide crucial services to customers in repressive regimes. The bill has not been reintroduced in the U.S. Congress this year, and earlier this month, a top European regulator, European Union Telecommunications Commissioner Viviane Reding, dismissed the notion of Europe passing its own Global Internet Freedom Act, saying that she was not convinced that “hard law” was the best way to address the issue.

For Internet executives who feared that hard-line regulatory mandates might force them out of many countries, Reding’s comments came as welcome relief. But celebration is premature. Threats to Internet freedom are growing and lawmakers’ concerns about industry’s role remain rightly high.  Those who choose to misconstrue Reding’s remarks as a free pass on this important issue do so at their peril.

Now is the time that Internet and technology companies must step up and take on the very challenges that the Global Internet Freedom Act was intended to address in order to ensure that their services and technologies do not become tools for surveillance and oppression.

Lest companies argue that the problem is too big and complex for any one company to make a difference, there is a responsible way forward. Late last year, a diverse coalition of leading information and communications companies, major human rights organizations, academics, investors and technology leaders launched the Global Network Initiative, which seeks to provide a framework to help information and telecommunications companies chart an ethical and accountable path forward through the growing demands from countries to take actions that infringe on the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users.

Equally important, the initiative promotes collective action to uphold the rule of law and the adoption of public policies that protect and respect freedom of expression and privacy on the global network. Three technology giants – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! – have shown critical leadership by committing to the Global Network Initiative. Now, others in the industry need to step up and make that commitment as well.

Companies that join the initiative will find its requirements both rigorous and fair. Signatories will have two years to implement a range of commitments including conducting human rights risk assessments, training employees, increasing transparency with users and employing a high degree of push back when government restrictions or demands appear to be inconsistent with fundamental rights. Members also commit to encouraging their joint venture and business partners to abide by the same principles.

The collective goal is not to provide the definitive rulebook for companies doing business in hundreds of countries with countless different legal regimes. Rather, the initiative provides a framework that allows companies to stand up for their customers, wherever they are in the world, and to draw support from a powerful community of business leaders and human rights advocates.

Now is a critical moment for this initiative. As regulators shift their focus away from immediate legislative action, the test for the Internet industry will be the extent to which it commits itself to addressing the challenge on its own. The Global Network Initiative provides a path toward responsible action. But its value depends in part on expanding participation from the companies in the sector and building a global identity.

One thing is certain: the challenge of upholding global Internet freedom is not going away. The next time a foreign government uses American Internet technology to spy on citizens, censor democratic materials or otherwise oppress users, the world will ask what the Internet industry is doing to address the problem.

Ignoring the issue was never a viable alternative. The world is on notice about these practices, and the next attempt to legislate the issue is always just around the corner. Companies that participate in the Global Network Initiative will be prepared to do the right thing regardless of whether or not there is a legal mandate to do so. At the end of the day, this is about leadership on a fundamental issue of human rights that will not go away.


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If the United States government obeyed the Constitution and abided by FISA law, private U.S. citizens would enjoy freedom from unwarranted government surveilance. Since Bush and the Patriot Act, those Constitutional rights have been violated and the American public has been lied to repeatedly. Citizen’s are now categorized, profiled, and targeted by the subgovernments within such as the FBI to the CIA to the NSA that have legal authority to bypass U.S. law for miscellaneous “national security” excuses.The fourth amendment of our Constitution reads:”The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”While it would be nice to return to law and order and protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, citizens simply no longer have the tools to protect themselves. The sheer secrecy and sophistication of the U.S. and other governments to use intrusive technology from satellites to cameras to supercomputors to track, profile and trade citizen’s movements both on and off the web make the Soviet police state look like child’s play.The last recourse for citizens in this surveillance age is that no secret evidence gathered without express permission should be allowed in a court of law.Privacy is dead outside the thoughts inside your head.

Posted by first | Report as abusive

You are right Leslie. Corporations should not assist governments attempts to silence or jail dissidents in return for being allowed to do business in any given country. The crux of the matter is how to enforce such laws internationally. Provisions for privacy and privileged conversation differ from country to country. I do not believe world government is the answer. One more nail in the coffin of globalization.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

As far as I concerned the lie that is globalization cannot be buried fast enough.

Posted by RFL | Report as abusive

People generally do not have the maturity to handle this technology appropriately. First I want to discount an illusion. Infinite information does not equate to complete understanding. You can complete a complete record of every trade on a company, each millisecond, each trading day, and not come one step closer to predict the future outcome. The Soviet Union is a country that spent a lot of time monitoring its citizens. Essentially they went bankrupt. The United States is now a country closely monitoring its citizens. It is now close to bankrupt. Do you see a pattern. I am not saying that monitoring causes bankruptcy. However, hiring halfwits into positions on authority who believe in a dictatorial level of monitoring results in bankruptcy. The United States has been monitored like crazy. But with all of that information not a single monkey on a computer could predict our economic transformation, which is a greater risk to national security than any terrorist organization. I honestly feel I can train a hamster to do a better job. At the same time, it is easier to get things done when stupid people are busy watching over others. So I guess there are benefits and drawbacks.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

The internet is the last frontier of democracy that remains in the world. All of the network news operations are so grossly biased that nothing they say has any objectivity or credibility. They are all corporate shills and acolytes for the political parties advancing the issue du jour. The people know where to look for the truth, and more and more they go to the information on the internet as their source of truthful, unbiased information.This is where people still have a participatory voice in their society, of course it is under attack.

Posted by phoenix1 | Report as abusive

Internet government control is necessary.We should have a systematic game plan to govern the internet from theives, child molesters and whoever else that is corrupt. If we don’t address it now, we will all be in a bad position in the coming years. There needs to devices implanted in new computers to prevent too much personal information givent to the general public. Everyone is at risk now and has been from the start. Let’s get some control!

Posted by Connie Johnson | Report as abusive

if the internet is doubling in size and “capability’s”, at an exponential rate, their appears to be an urgent, if not critical, need to initiate a progressive, robust  platform, to address the infinite issues that ‘technologically mediated communication’ will throw at, we, as the human species ád finitum’.if mankind were determined to collaborate on nature’s of common interest, (for example, the creative rehabilitation of our beautiful planet, earth) this would free up vast resources and brilliant minds, currently mired down in the vulgar determinations of who did what to whom etc.what I am trying to propose is, that if we all decided,as humans,to show compassion and humility to one another, agencies like the UN could get down to positive,creative dialogue and maybe, just maybe, fix this rather large mess, called the internet(we are all certainly captured in that parallel world, or net)

Posted by brett kenneth sweeny | Report as abusive

So sad, too bad. It’s already happened here, I’m telling you my dear, it’s already happened here. They didn’t need Google and Yahoo; they needed AT&T, Verizon, et al. (who aren’t signed up for this initiative). So now, in the home of the free, you now need to assume that any and/or all of your e-mails and phone calls are monitored.

Posted by jeff | Report as abusive

If Jesus were alive today he would be under surveillance.

Posted by phoenix1 | Report as abusive

This account seems to generously estimate the humanity possessed by what are essentially profit oriented entities, whose management is ultimately beholden to shareholders.A more realistic projection would take into account that these corporations are driven by profit, and in order to maximize their profit they need to carefully manage private arrangements with authoritarian regimes while engaging in a delicate impression management attempting to positively impact the value of their brands among consumer markets in open societies.This will result in a complex array of behaviors, on the parts of these tech firms, that will be both opaque and publicly transparent. The theme underlying the story constructed in public might deviate from the motivations that compel the corporations operatators as they interact in spaces not subject to journalistic scrutiny.Indeed, what I have just described is a perfect representation of Yahoo!’s conduct over the past decade.r cole

Posted by Russell Cole | Report as abusive

Just be fearless and the Dog will begin to wag the tail again.

Posted by Big Bill | Report as abusive

Cloud computing is the very ultimate in outsourcing.

Posted by Ken | Report as abusive

The problem appears to be that you have to abide by the laws of the country you operate in. The privacy laws of the US are not available to an ISP based in Beijing.IMHO, some of this could be alleviated buy intelligent use of available tools such as VPN tunneling, secure peer-to-peer transacting, tor, and other obfuscation methods that make it hard to track a given user. Nifty applications can be created specific to the task of origin masking on personal communication devices as the operating systems become more sophisticated. Plausible deniability may be achieved via use of open source encryption methods, such as bcrypt and truecrypt.However, until the day that there is a world-wide free internet, become accustomed to the fact that nation-states ultimately control the switch. They can put the squeeze on a local ISP, so one has to operate with guaranteed discretion if one is an activist in certain countries, or one must operate by proxies that are untraceable.

Posted by Al Reaud | Report as abusive

We have internet because governments have put satellites in orbit around the Earth. The aim of placing satellites orbiting the Earth right from the start was to spy on what was below. Now cables are used to connect continents by internet but the technology has derived from the Cold War Defense research and development. If governments want to monitor the users and non-users alike, it’s very easy because they have always put in place the means to. That is why they invested heavily on spying equipment. I dissagree with the defunct Carl Sagan, who said that satellite technology would calm down the paranoids on both sides (of the Cold War) because one side (the american) would know what the other (the Soviet) was doing and thus stop the proliferation of nuclear arms. In fact, I think that the internet has enabled the paranoids (at least on this side) to full scale control of the population without resorting to nuclear fearmongering and it hasn’t stopped nations from destroying their current nuclear stash to any degree relevant, at least. What can be more fearful: Some foreign enemy most americans will never see on its shores or personal information being subjected to the whims of some impersonal eye in the sky? I wish Sagan been alive to see all this today: racial profiling instead of police work, searching national and international citizens without a warrant, or even their knowledge, instead of active diplomatic collaboration to pursue genuine foreign enemies, use of mass media to aid in misinforming instead of reasonable reporting of police work developments.It’s far too easy to play with personal prejudice against any given percentage of the population to disguise the absolute incompetence to capture real enemies. Which, by the way, are all means of massive communication. I’m sure the reasoning is that if you make people police each other, it keeps the terrorists at bay.It seems it wasn’t so easy to pry before the general use of computers since records were primarily kept in physical form (paper) and it would require vast collaboration to get to them, even the Social Security Number information. It is also true that the physical aspect of writing on a piece of paper involves the writer to think well before committing to voicing his/her opinion and write numerous times to get it right. I’m guilty of not thinking much prior to leaving my comments and my grammar shows it, along with my jumbled thoughts. But then, even Reuters is guilty of putting news out that haven’t been proof-read.The consequences of typing online are more dangerous than printing revolutionary flyers in an underground press because you’re just too easy to track down, regardless of your anonymous proxies.Take the case of how China deals with bloggers and others who criticize the Party or the Country: China simply shuts the servers down and finds whoever it wants realy quickly. What keeps the US from doing the same? Or pressuring/bribing the likes of Google or Yahoo into collaboration? Nothing.A basic printing press does not keep any personal information of the writer/s it prints, neither does a pen. But a computer does and that information can and will be used against you, whether by law or by unsavory individuals you don’t know.I feel paranoid at times but if we are paranoid with each other, then the work of despots is already half done. There is less value in a bunch of laws preserving freedom of speech and privacy when it’s far too easy to breach both without being open regarding it.As a last question, how much of my personal information am I risking by leaving a comment here, I wonder?

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Oh now you want the technology companies to save you??After you expect them to provide everything for free and continuously beat them down on cost….?Unfortunately you sleep in the bed you make and most of the tech companies are not interested in you and fiercely guarding your privacy. Like normal companies, they’re looking to make a profit. Compliance to privacy legislation is done primarily on the collective level to limit liability. They’re hardly going to stand up against the US governement and the expense that entails on your behalf. Dont expect them to respect you when you have hardly done much to respect them….1984 here we come!

Posted by JK | Report as abusive

we need kinda common sense. i’ve seen organizations like Amnesty international very quietly if not dead during those two wars in Afghanistan and Irak.I assume they should have made divisions for covering the warand also divisions for covering the local violence we livehere in the US and broad frontiers and US islands.I agree the EFF does a great job, and kindly support manyof their proposals. but we also should be kind and more openregarding invisible web spiders that make people go furiouswhen they know that some of their content goes onlinebefore being published.In fact, i’m working close to the EFF to ensure a global proposition for digging into private content withoutfurther actions and leaving mankind to trust the capabilitywe have to solve problems peacefully in the best casesand quickly receiving international support (aka Amnesty)if things go out of maner and violence takes over peoplewho actually are internet users and their contentis needed to be ‘protected’ from going online priorto their posts.I hope some hard-right organizations to be sure thatpeople stand still supporting their rights, andcitizens need to cope with fear of totalitarian statesand get all the support they need, specially thosesuffering the crisis worst than the others withresources to succed.Email intervention thru satellite in many cases is massivein half-totalitarian countries with anti-invasive fencedfrontiers. i assume it would be less nastier to proposea global scheme defining steps to follow for the internationalcommunity to bring the net to less painful situationsfor their citizens and for foreign citizens stayingin totalitarian countries too, without the needof hard intervention from embassies or war threats,like occurs in the case of Iran because of their humanrights issues, that molest international citizensregarding a world less bloody in all terms.The press should be very smooth and clever regardingindividuals troubling the vision of future all havefor the net itself.we all should define procedures to get out of this riddlethe net brings to standard tough inner policies fromstates. even to include countries with negativebirth coefficient into the discussion no matterif they are rich countries or very poor ones.

Posted by Prop8 | Report as abusive

The internet is the only tool that has not been captured within mankinds egoic created worldorder structures. The rise of Consciousness and humankinds transformation to the rise of the authentic I and realignment with the ‘I AM’ is no coincidence. The internet is a natural facilitator in the (real) democratic process.

Posted by Tamara | Report as abusive

It is interesting that China is once again the focus of the internet censorship debate. Just look at the keywords used to push this article. The fact is that the US and UK are actively trying to censor websites like infowars (dot)com that inform the public about the 911 hoax and global warming hoax. The fact is that news companies that are under corporate control like reuters are facing competition from much more reliable sources that give real facts. I admire the spirit of Leslie’s article but the answer is not in some form of global governance that “gives” rights to dissidents. It is the taking of power by dissidents regardless of what the world powers think.They can’t arrest everyone. The internet has woken up millions to the fact that they are just serfs of a corrupt international banking system. The only solution for these bankers is too destroy the internet before common people really take over the world.

Posted by jay | Report as abusive

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