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Internet blackouts and their impact on IG and ICT policy

Published on 27 March 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘Freedom of expression’ by Michael Foley Photography. Some rights reserved.

In my previous blog post, ‘E-winds of Change’, I described the recent – and unsuccessful – attempts to silence dissent. Yet, just as WikiLeaks rocked the foundation of diplomacy, so have the blackouts largely influenced the IG debate and the developments in ICT policy.

1. Heightened debates on ‘freedoms’

Discussions on freedom of speech and expression will continue to play a big role in the IG debate, especially during the 6th IGF meeting in Nairobi.

In reality, the debate has already started. In Geneva last month, while discussing the theme of this year’s meeting, members of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group had a lengthy debate over whether to include ‘freedom’ or ‘freedoms’ or whether to exclude it altogether from the main theme. At the end, it was decided that ‘freedoms’ best encompassed the reference to human rights essential for IG and for development, and the bearing the recent events have had on freedom of expression. ‘Internet as a catalyst for change, access, development, freedoms, and innovation’ was chosen as this year’s main theme.

2. Standard-setting initiatives

While IGF organisers and IG stakeholders are busy setting up agendas and preparing for workshops and sessions, there has been a surge in initiatives that are currently seeking to garner enough support to become established principles and norms.

Among these initiatives are the ‘seven principles’ of acceptable behaviour in cyberspace, which British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke about on 4 February at the Munich Security Conference. The principles were described as an attempt to set the ball rolling faster on a set of standards that will underpin future international norms on how countries should act in cyberspace.

‘As liberal democracies we also have a compelling interest in supporting democratic ideals in cyberspace, and working to convince others of this vision.  When we talk about defending ourselves against cyber threats, we also mean the threat against individual rights to freedom of expression that is posed by states blocking internet communications. The free flow of ideas and information is an essential underpinning of liberty,’ Foreign Secretary Hague stressed.

The principles include ‘the need for governments to act proportionately in cyberspace and in accordance with national and international law’, and ‘Ensuring that cyberspace remains open to innovation and the free flow of ideas, information and expression’.

On 15 February, during a policy address at the George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also called for ‘a serious conversation’ about principles of Internet freedom that guide online behaviour: what rules exist – and should not exist – and why; what behaviours should be encouraged and discouraged, and how.

‘The goal is not to tell people how to use the internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square… if people around the world are going come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.’

Currently, the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition is also working on the ‘10 principles to govern the Internet’. Although still in draft form, the aim is to use the principles as an advocacy tool in conjunction with the IRP’s draft Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet.

Among these principles are accessibility (Everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open Internet) and expression (Everyone has the right to hold and express opinions, and to seek, receive, and impart information on the Internet without arbitrary interference or surveillance. Everyone has the right to communicate anonymously online).

Meanwhile, a Council of Europe conference on ‘Internet Freedom – From Principles to Global Treaty Law? Content, Stakeholders, Form’ is set to take place on 18-19 April in Strasbourg. On the agenda is the question of whether the global free flow of information over the Internet sustainable, in the light of interference with the free flow of online traffic, cyber attacks, and pressure sustained by companies that manage or service the Internet.

The conference will also discuss the draft declaration on IG principles which the Council of Europe Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Cross-border Internet is proposing as draft Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Declaration.

3. IGF: reaching out

The Internet blackouts have not affected the people living in the affected regions, who used the Internet to voice their dissatisfaction and frustration, but the rest of the world. Everyone else has been watching intently, asking questions, and expecting their governments to answer.

Somewhere in the middle between the people’s concerns and policy-makers’ attempts to address the problems, is a community of stakeholders debating Internet governance issues. The debates reach a peak during the annual IGF meeting.

Yet, how many people know about the existence of an IGF, convened annually by the UN to discuss issues that affect everyone’s lives? How many of the world’s policy-makers are aware that a number of stakeholders convene every year and spend four intensive days of discussion? How many people know that a segment of the stakeholders – civil society – talk and act in the interest of online users?

Last month’s Open Consultations in Geneva (morning and afternoon session transcripts), entrusted to make recommendations in relation to the IGF programme, confirmed the need for IGF outcomes to be communicated to policy-makers in a way they can make use of such messages.

Quoting from Diplo’s Internet governance website: ‘Vladimir Radunovic, Diplo’s IG programmes co-ordinator, said that one way of making the outcomes of the IGF discussions more relevant, especially to policy-makers, was to bring out the key points in the form of condensed or archived messages. He said a second step would involve ‘de-archiving’ these messages into ideas that can be clearly understood by policy-makers and other stakeholders who are not involved in the IG process. Capacity-building among such stakeholders would ensure a global impact of the IGF.’

The same applies for online users. Efforts in conveying the discussions should be undertaken not only for the sake of promoting the IGF, but for informing online users that stakeholders are discussing important issues on their behalf too; that the outcomes have an impact on ICT policy, which will in turn impact aspects of the Internet as we know it from everyday use; that the IGF is one of the central places in which representatives from the technical side, from civil society, from businesses, and from governments, are engaged in common discussions.

With legitimate fears that the Internet blackouts have brought about, and with the sharp attention these events have attracted from everyone, now is the time for the IGF to increase awareness and reach out to policy-makers.

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