A Reporters Without Borders representative will take part in an IGF workshop on Internet filtering and free expression at 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. on 31 October (contact : [email protected]).
Reporters Without Borders will be at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens to remind participants that free expression must be at the centre of any model of Internet governance, and to reiterate its positions on Internet neutrality and the need for Internet companies to behave ethically.
The forum, taking place from 30 October to 2 November, follows on from the World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis a year ago.
“This event is an opportunity to remind governments that the free flow of information online must be one of the leading principles of any model of Internet governance,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Governments that censor the Internet and imprison Internet users will be represented at the IGF. It is vital that they should not decide the Internet’s future.”
The debate: The United States currently controls the organisations that run the Internet, the leading one being ICANN, based in California, whose duties include managing domain names worldwide. This situation is criticised by virtually all other countries, which say it is unacceptable that the Americans should be in this all-powerful position. The reaction is understandable as ICANN’s decisions, despite seeming very technical, have direct political repercussions. To take just one example, ICANN could in theory completely eliminate the domain names of certain countries (such as .fr or .cn for example) from the Internet. Money is also at stake because the entity that runs the Internet could favour certain technologies, and therefore certain companies.
The situation is open to criticism but the only clearly-defined alternative model at the moment comes from countries that do not respect online freedom of expression. China, Cuba and the world’s most repressive countries are trying to get the job of regulating the Internet assigned to an independent supranational organisation – the United Nations. But in view of the UN’s negligent attitude to human rights – don’t forget that its ad hoc commission was chaired by Libya – this is an alarming idea. Do we really want the countries that censor the Internet and jail cyber-dissidents to be in charge of the online flow of information?
The European Union has also taken a position, proposing something mid-way between the Chinese and US positions. It says ICANN’s critical functions, those having direct political consequences, should be entrusted to a “collegial, multilateral structure.” Nonetheless, the European position is very vague and in no way defines a new model of Internet governance.
The Reporters Without Borders position: It is not right that the United States should have sole control of the Internet’s regulatory bodies. So it is understandable that other countries should try to establish a new mode of Internet governance. But any reform must respect the following principles:
– Do not give too much power to governments. The Internet must continue to be a network that is mainly developed by the private sector and civil society.
– Ensure that repressive governments are not able to assume a dominant position within the Internet’s new regulatory structures.
– Give the Internet management bodies the means to defend free expression. For example, give them the possibility of adopting sanctions against countries or corporations whose policies violate article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
HOLDING INTERNET COMPANIES RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR BEHAVIOUR
The debate: Many Internet sector companies that have operations in repressive countries violate the principle of the free flow of information. To take just a few examples:
– Yahoo! censors its search engine in China and collaborates with the Chinese police so that dissidents and independent journalists can be arrested and convicted.
– US companies Secure Computing and Fortinet sell filtering software to countries such as Tunisia and Burma that do not respect free expression.
– The US company Verint Systems and its British competitor Silver Bullet sell equipment for tapping mobile phones to the Vietnamese police.
The Reporters Without Borders position: Internet sector companies should be required to respect free expression in whatever country they operate. Complying with local laws can in no way be an excuse for violating international human rights standards. In view of the inability of these companies to establish serious ethical codes, we hold that:
– The governments of democratic countries should regulate the activities of Internet companies to prevent this kind of abuse. There should, for example, be a ban on the sale of communication surveillance equipment to repressive countries. Internet companies should also be forbidden to operate e-mail services from servers based in these countries.
– Any new worldwide Internet regulatory structure should establish international standards in this regard.
THE PRINCIPLE OF INTERNET NEUTRALITY
The debate: Under the neutrality principle, operators such as Verizon or France Telecom are not allowed to make any distinction between people or organisations that provide a Net service. For example, Internet service providers would not be allowed to provide certain blogs or websites with a better service than they provide to others. US telecoms operators want to do away with this principle above all in order to be able to provide video on demand, which needs much more bandwidth. At present a blog uses the same network as the CNN website, so a step in that direction would mean creating two Internets: one high speed, for commercial concerns; the other slower for all those without the means to pay for the operators’ services.
The Reporters Without Borders position: Abandoning the neutrality principle would have direct consequences for bloggers and Internet users throughout the world. If telecommunications operators are allowed to offer different services according to the price paid by content providers it is likely that small online publications, particularly blogs, will be relegated to a second-class Internet, with a bandwidth much smaller than that of commercial concerns. There would be a risk that websites without financial means would disappear to make space for big content providers. The neutrality principle has made the Internet an open, creative and free media. Reporters Without Borders therefore proposes that:
– Neutrality is recognised as a fundamental principle for Internet regulation. It could even be included in the statutes of the bodies responsible for worldwide management of the Internet.
Reporters Without Borders is organising a “24-hour online protest against Internet censorship” and calls on Internet users to be ready to take part.