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How big is Internet Freedom?

Rebecca MacKinnon and I led a conversation at the Global Voices public summit on the topic of “Internet Freedom”. I raised the idea that term “internet freedom” is so broad that it can end up being meaningless. Rebecca’s offered the wonderful idea that “internet freedom is a Rorschach test” – what someone sees in the term tells you more about them than it does about the subject.

I suggested that Internet Freedom could include everything from circumventing the Chinese firewall, to pressuring US web companies to protect online speech, to advocating for network neutrality. And then our room full of international bloggers, advocates, activists, government officials and businesspeople proceeded to explode my tentative definition of internet freedom and demonstrate just how huge the field potentially is.

Sami ben Gharbia, dear friend, Global Voices Advocacy director and provocateur par excellence, started things off with a bang by offering one of the hardest challenges to the internet freedom field. He suggests that the money coming into the internet freedom field from governments could present a threat to activists who accept their support. His concern is rooted in cases of organizations like Hamas executing “collaborators” based on their receipt of fiscal support from the US. Sami suggests a need to warn activists about these dangers and ensure they make informed decisions, rather than simply accepting potentially dangerous internet freedom funds. He offers a second challenge – if the US is interested in promoting internet freedom, why such a strong focus on Iran and China, and not on Vietnam, Mauritania or Tunisia? Is internet freedom really just another way of projecting national priorities by the US state department?

I asked Sami whether there was any way he thought the US government could have a beneficial influence in the internet freedom space. His blunt answer: “No. I’d prefer they stay out of the field.”

Bob Boorstin, good friend, Director of Corporate and Policy Communication at Google, former US government official and skilled rhetorical combatant, isn’t buying Sami’s framing of the issues. He worries that Sami’s frame is “paranoid”, and suggests that any country’s foreign policy is going to recognize the importance of some countries over others. “We pay more attention to countries with nuclear weapons than to those that don’t.” Asked what he’d like to see the US government doing, Bob wants agreement between democracies to disclose precisely what they block and censor, and wants the US to use a trade barrier framework to fight against censorship.

Much of the dialog centered on the idea of a statement of internet rights. A group in Brazil, one of our discussants tells us, is leveraging a successful campaign against an internet filtering law and now working on collaboratively authoring an internet bill of rights. Robert Guerra of Freedom House worries that an independent internet bill of rights ignores the fact that there’s already protections for online speech in Article XIX of the universal declaration of human rights. Cyrus Farivar helpfully points out that countries like Iran have signed the Universal Declaration but don’t respect or protect those rights – why would we think they’d respect a new declaration? Muhammad Karim suggests a creative commons model for internet freedom – a core of basic principles which could be adapted to be consonant with local laws.

The legal complications of internet freedom aren’t restricted to declarations of freedom of speech – they include trade and commerce laws as well. Jillian York reminds us that US sanctions prevent users in Syria from downloading key pieces of software – we need to freedoms throughout the legal framework, not just in terms of freedom of speech.

But internet freedom is bigger than the realm of law and policy. One of our conference guests introduces himself as an anarchist and argues that networks that the users don’t own aren’t free. He’d like to see us supporting mesh networking, creating physical networks that aren’t owned by corporate internet service providers. I pointed out that corporations are controlling most of our critical online “public spaces”.

But Lova Rakotomalala broadened the space more than anyone else, arguing that, if we consider internet freedom to be a human right, the struggle to protect that right needs to consider access as well. In a country like his native Madagascar, protecting speech online is a small part of the problem – extending internet to the 98% of the community that has no access is a much more challenging struggle.

How big is internet freedom? It’s big – perhaps too big to fit in the space of one discussion. But the breadth of framings for this issue at GV gives me great confidence that we’re doing a good job of creating a “big room” in which we can share these perspectives. I felt like this conversation started showing me where the walls of that room might be.