Tensions Rise in Global Battle Over Internet Freedom as UN Discusses Human Rights Online

March 7, 2012

In the global battle over the future of the Internet countries that stand for an open, dynamic web with minimal regulation and limits on free expression are increasingly under pressure from authoritative States seeking greater control over its infrastructure and content. Here is a snapshot from the front lines.

On 29th February in Geneva, the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC), the most influential international human rights body, had a panel discussion dedicated to Internet Freedom for the first time.

Attendees witnessed a rare episode of very undiplomatic political drama as the diverging views on free expression online between the West and a large group of authoritarian States went on display – as totalitarian states took the gloves off to make clear that their long-term effort to control the net knows no institutional boundaries.

From the beginning, the meeting was characterized by confrontation and deliberate efforts to disrupt the session. When Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan, the moderator, began introducing the panelists, the Cuban delegate took his country’s nameplate and banged it on his desk to raise a point of order (a procedural ‘motion’ that is often used to disrupt meetings as it requires an immediate ruling by the Chair). Cuba requested the Chairman to explain whether the session was formally part of the HCR session. The Chairman’s affirmation was followed by more flag-banging to request that the session be led by an official member of the Council and not by an external moderator, a request that the Chairman dismissed.

Russia followed up, loudly banging the table to request the moderator to respect the rules of procedure and not turn the session into a “TV talkshow”. (click here to watch the video of the Russian intervention – unfortunately edited to remove the drama of the ‘flag-banging’).

By the end of the 2.5 hour session, six countries, including Russia, China and Cuba, had raised a total of seven points of order. A long-time observer of the HRC noted that points of order are rare at the HRC and that the tone used by countries attacking the session leaders and trying to undermine the session was unusually abrasive for the HRC, where even strong disagreements are generally couched in polite ‘diplomat-speak’.

A number of panellists, including UN High Commissioner for Human RightsNavi Pillay, Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue, Google’s Bill Echikson, Anriette Esterhuysen from the Association for Progressive Communication, US Ambassador Donahoe and other Western Governments made passionate and very strong calls to protect freedom of expression and other human rights online and stressed the importance of corresponding safeguards such as due process of law and safe harbor provisions for intermediaries.

The many countries with contrary views, led by China and Russia, published a Joint Statement (full text here and video here) with 28 other countries, including North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. “The Internet”, the Chinese delegate noted,  “is often used to propagate terrorism, extremism….  and even ideas of toppling legitimate authorities… [and] is used by some groups to distort fact, exaggerate situation and provoke violence…”. The Statement also sets out their vision for the web of the future: “The Internet industry should act to foster a crime free, reliable and secure cyberspace…” and “Governments should strengthen legislation in efforts of Internet regulation and law enforcement activities…”

This is only the second time China has delivered a joint statement in the HRC, which may indicate that they are starting to assume a more assertive role for the unfortunately large group of countries that sees the Internet as increasingly threatening.

The positions expressed in the HRC are also congruent with these same countries’ efforts to use issues like spam, cybercrime, IPR infringement and child pornography as a pretext to call for broad surveillance of online activities and increased Government control of the Internet’s infrastructure and policy-making frameworks. This agenda is being pursued across Geneva-based UN organs including those concerned with telecommunications (ITU), Intellectual Property (WIPO) and Internet Government-related forums (IGF, CSTD).

If you would like to read more about this long-standing struggle for the future of the net, and why 2012 is such an important year for these issues, please click here.

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