From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 2
Internet Freedom: Rhetoric Versus Reality
IN THIS ARTICLE
In the last few years the Internet has borne witness to and facilitated a great deal of social and societal change. From Hilary Clinton's positive 2010 address; ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom', to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that showcased the power of social media, the internet, its use and power, has been at the forefront of recent news.1 However, equal to, if not overtaking the positive and enabling factors of the Internet in recent years are the many controversies surrounding it. While undoubtedly carrying the potential to do great good, the Internet has been plagued with numerous impediments, setbacks and controls that greatly damage its offered freedoms. ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, Tempora, Prism, DMCA and adult content opt in, are all examples of recent controversies surrounding freedom on the Internet.2 What is particularly surprising is that all of these restrictions to freedom stem from the very states that laud Internet freedom so highly.
The US and UK being so publicly supportive of Internet Freedom in rhetoric, yet so thoroughly undermining it in action represents a key impediment to global Internet Freedom. If the leading global states are unwilling to forward Internet Freedom in any more than word, how can others be expected to in deed? The current system of Internet governance in general presents a relatively hostile environment within which to foster Internet Freedom. The power of large corporations and companies is immense and the influence they have is equal to their power. Both of these factors further impede the proliferation of Internet Freedom in a way that is currently being decided in the courts of the United States. It is not the undemocratic states that appear to pose the largest threat to Internet Freedom, but the very states that should be protecting it.
This piece will begin by presenting a distinction of the different aspects of Internet Freedom and a brief outline of its current global standing. It will then explain the damage caused by the disparity between freedom rhetoric and reality, after this it will move to explain the current systems of governance and the hostile environment this creates for global Internet freedom. Finally, this work will offer a small and by no means conclusive list of possibilities that would ease the transition to wider freedoms before drawing together the conclusions into a brief summary.
Internet Freedom is an amalgam of two distinct aspects. The initial aspect is the actual physicality of connection; being able to access infrastructure such as computers, phone lines or mobile devices. With the rapid pace of technological advancement, the dropping costs linked to Moore's Law and programs like the Mark Zuckerberg fronted internet.org, access rates to infrastructure are increasing rapidly.3 There are numerous other programs that aim to reduce the digital divide and new Internet users are joining the web each day. Therefore, this piece will concentrate primarily on the second aspect of Internet Freedom; unfettered access to online content.
Recently declared a human right under the 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution ‘The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet' (HRC 2012, Resolution A/HRC/20/L.13), online interactions are now afforded protection equal to offline, real world interaction.4 The HRC 2012 resolution links to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19, specifically the protection of free speech as an attempt to further Internet Freedom through uncensored discourse and content regardless of frontiers.5 Although now considered a human right, the HRC 2012 resolution has appeared relatively impotent since its adoption and there are still extensive levels of censorship online. There are numerous reasons for online censorship but one of utmost pertinence is that it is almost impossible to form a global consensus on content and access that will attract global support.
As with any contentious subject there will be differing norms and views. The Internet is no exception. Different States have different societal norms and these are reflected in Internet content and acceptable online subjects. Simply put, not everyone wants to have free and unfettered access to the Internet. The ideals of Internet Freedom are prevalent mainly in Western states. Many states view much Internet content as offensive and adversely influential, one just has to consider the ‘Innocence of Muslims' riots of 2012.6 Of course in any state there will be a continuum between those that wish to access all material and make their own decisions and those that wish to be shielded from certain content. The logical outcome of this would be to make the Internet completely free and have consumers set their own individual parameters of censorship, however as shall be expounded, this is not a realistic proposition and generally leads to a level of censorship that will vary from region to region, state to state.
Rhetoric Versus Action in Western States
The United States, a country that prides itself in its history of liberty and freedom, certainly has a strong public rhetoric regarding Internet Freedom. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has presented several public speeches that provide a litany of the ways that the Internet can enhance a state's economy, religious freedom and democracy. However just months after her 2010 address, ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom' it was discovered that the US had launched a concerted and highly advanced cyber attack against Iran.7 The hypocrisy of lauding the democratizing factors of a free Internet while simultaneously using it as an advanced attack mechanism was not a one off. In 2013 the Edward Snowden leaks highlighted the NSA PRISM program, a classified system forcing US ISPs and phone providers to supply a huge amount of metadata to US security agencies for analysis, and allowing the NSA direct access to company servers.8 Given Hillary Clinton's position as Secretary of State (who also serves on the National Security Council) at the time both events were underway it seems likely that Clinton was aware of the actions.
This kind of hypocrisy is incredibly damaging to any of the legitimate claims or attempts at supporting Internet Freedom. Even more recently in October 2015, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) bill was passed.9 CISA allows technology companies to share information on cyber threats with US authorities and other companies in order to enhance group security, however the bill is vague enough to allow for large scale personal data sharing without a warrant.10 President Obama signed the bill into law, which was attached to the federal funding ‘omnibus' bill, on the same day that the rest of America was preoccupied with the release of the newest Star Wars film. If leading states such as the US do not fully support Internet Freedom, or discuss it in an open and honest manner then there seems little hope for a global movement.
Internet Freedom is a continuum line of liberty and security, the more freedom, generally the less security and vice versa. As has been briefly shown the Internet is a powerful tool indeed at a state level for surveillance and other means. One expects a degree of control and surveillance in nondemocratic states such as China and Cuba and these abuses of freedom are well documented.11 The propensity to abuse Internet freedoms by democratic states however provides a much bigger impediment to Internet Freedom as a whole. If the states that support Internet Freedom are not willing to adhere to their own rhetoric the hypocrisy is an instantaneous barrier to spreading the freedoms they claim to support through foreign policy.
Presumably it will also raise questions as to why the US and UK would support Internet Freedom and its proliferation when they are perfecting means of using it as a surveillance tool. The Internet offers such attractive surveillance opportunities to security services that unfettered, unrestricted and anonymous Internet access does not seem a realistic global goal. Just like Western democratic states, states that are not governed by a system of democracy are acutely aware of the power that the Internet has to facilitate subversion of state control.12 The Arab spring uprising is a prime example of the dangers that the Internet can impose on a government. Between these two it seems unlikely that either type of state will gain dramatically from advancing Internet Freedom.13
The current system of laws and Internet governance that stems from the US monopoly on Internet control simply does not support widespread freedom promotion. The US government is particularly susceptible to large lobbying bodies and some of the largest of these bodies are the well-funded music and movie industry trade bodies. These bodies have the congressional influence and money to quickly move bills through congress that favour control over freedom. While the SOPA and PIPA bills were killed in house it was only through the opposition and awareness brought by some of the Internet giants such as Google, Twitter and Wikipedia.14 Large bodies have a great deal of influence in congress and therefore pose a real risk to Internet Freedom when that runs counter to their wishes.
As has been shown they can be overruled by popular public opinion but only with the backing of equally large organisations. The CISA bill however, was not so easily curtailed. Even the HRC 2012 resolution, that protects human rights on the Internet, appears to offer little real protection. The Electronic Frontier Foundation keeps a track of US court cases stemming from online actions and interactions that threaten to set precedents for future online freedom of speech issues.15 Many of these court cases seem to have been offered little protection under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was reaffirmed under HRC 2012. A recent case whereby an Estonian online news aggregator, Delfi, was held liable by the European Court of Human Rights for thirdparty posted comments, has the potential to set an incredibly damaging precedent. Even in the face of the HRC 2012 resolution, it was decided in the Strasbourg court that this particular human right is not applicable.16 The slow increase of intermediary liability and accountability may well represent the first steps of a slippery slope that will see ISPs become increasingly and eventually overly cautious in content moderation for reasons of liability protection.17
While clearly this is a hypothetical scenario, the beginnings of a slippery slope are becoming apparent. If Internet governance does indeed place further filtering and responsibilities on ISPs and other intermediaries, then Internet Freedom as a global prospect becomes severely impinged. In another recent and pivotal turn, the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia has made a ruling against net neutrality.18 Net neutrality is the equal and non-preferential treatment of all websites and services and is integral to the spread of global Internet Freedom through equal and unfettered access.19 The DoC court ruling while not final if upheld would enable ISPs to boost or curtail speeds to specific sites. It would also mean that ISPs could charge connection fees to popular sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter or bandwidth hungry sites such as Netflix or Hulu.20
Should this ruling be upheld it would become a major impediment to global Internet Freedom. With ISPs providing services based on a discriminatory and profit based model the potential for ISPs to block or throttle access to competitors' sites would be great. Clearly this limitation of content would run completely contrary to the basic tenets of Internet Freedom and as such represent the potential for a severe impediment to the spread of global Internet Freedom.
Multi-Stakeholderism A Case of Too Many Cooks
As previously mentioned, the current power of lobbying bodies and the move toward intermediary liability runs counter to the proliferation of Internet Freedom. It becomes increasingly apparent that the current multistakeholder system can only facilitate a restricted level of Internet. Multistakeholderism is such a complex method of governance that is does little to promote and facilitate the free potential of the Internet. This governance system is an incredible complex one that finely balances many different systems, governments, companies and states. However, this balance is potentially very precarious given that "different logics, languages and political cultures enter the scene, when different stakeholders share the same political arena".21 There are so many bodies involved in the multistakeholder approach, and as previously discussed, the different societal, political, economic and security views, culminate to create incredible difficulty for minor issues to be resolved let alone an issue such as global Internet Freedom.
Potential Alternative Systems
The Internet has become very adept at governing itself on a small scale. Many popular websites such as Reddit and Imgur run based on a user generated ranking system and simple algorithms.22 There is very little outside governance for these sites. Many other sites use similar systems to rank content. Wikipedia and other Wikis use a system of user generated content and collaboration.23 Likewise relevant to self-governance is the manner in which the Internet community has rallied around contentious freedom of speech subjects and house bills like SOPA and PIPA, or used social networking to bring around governmental change. In these scenarios large bodies of citizens can bring around revisions under the assistance, but not control, of larger organisations.
It would appear that a similar, ground up rather than top down governance would facilitate global Internet Freedom far more effectively. Clearly this would require a complete change to the governance of the Internet, or deference to consumers by large companies. Neither of these systems seem particularly realistic options and as such perhaps do not represent satisfactory substitutes to the current system, however they are representative of the possibilities of an alternative. Clay Shirky offers a very cogent argument in a 2012 TED talk, whereby he postulates that open source programming could revolutionize the notion of government through widespread public collaboration.24 Perhaps a similar system could be applied to Internet Governance which would have the corollary of advancing a global form of Internet Freedom, if indeed that is what the collaborators chose to accept. The Internet is still a relatively young technology and has undergone numerous changes and revisions in governance, technological aspects, content and use to warrant optimism over positive changes however unlikely they seem.
As has been argued, the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance does little to actively promote unfettered and free access to the Internet. The sheer number of interested regulatory parties and the divergence of views, laws, governments and norms do little to facilitate, and much to impede the global spread of Internet Freedom. The recent slew of highly contentious rulings and discoveries emanating from some of the biggest proponents of Internet Freedom is likewise exceptionally damaging to the promotion and furtherance of freedom as supposedly protected under HRC 2012. The sheer financial, and influential power held by some of the leviathan companies and parties currently involved in trying to bring around change in the governance and supply of the Internet shall prove to be a real issue of freedom in the coming months and years.
While some of the recent initiatives such as SOPA and PIPA were quashed, it remains to be seen if the current onslaught on net neutrality will attract enough defensive support to reverse the rulings. If not this could pose to be a critical blow for Internet Freedom. This writing has merely touched the surface of the issues at hand. The implications of Internet Freedom and its assistance or impediment has a knock on effect for International Relations as a whole. The battles currently being fought in the US, the centre of Internet governance, will undoubtedly impact and set precedents around the rest of the world for Internet Freedom. This will open international discourses as the Internet is now an inescapable part of life that effects International commerce, discourse and relations and any US ruling will be carefully watched by the rest of the International Community.
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