From Baku: Voices for internet freedom

The Baku Expo Centre is a fairly bland setting for the Internet Governance Forum 2012 — even if the choice of Azerbaijan as host is not —  but debates, discussions and overlapping conversations are lively, pointed, sometimes heated with voices from politics, business, activists, academics, officials around the world arguing about our digital world.

One thing is clear in this melee: a big international debate on how — and whether — we keep the internet free is under way, and there is a lot of support for the sort of bottom up, diverse, varied debate (or in techno-speak “multistakeholder governance model”) the IGF is part of.

Here’s a flavour of some of the views and debates of the first two days.

A common starting point at the IGF has been that offline rights must apply equally online. But views diverge rapidly on whether access to the internet is or should be a human right. “No,” says a lawyer, jumping to his feet, “we cannot defend that in court”; “yes” is the riposte from a senior Kenyan official, adding that “as more people in Kenya use mobiles for simple money transfers, lack of access to such a service would block many people from normal economic activities as well as from wider information and debates.”

Switch to another session and a Council of Europe official is arguing — strangely — that we probably cannot avoid population-wide databases on our digital comms, so we must control who has access and how. A speaker from India in a subsequent session disagrees strongly calling such big data projects “a big catastrophe”.

Azerbaijani writer, Emin Milli explains that in Azerbaijan you can freely write on Twitter or Facebook, but the problem is what happens afterwards. The regime targets writers and bloggers with the aim of creating more widespread intimidation and self-censorship — online and offline censorship intertwine.


EU MEP Marietje Schaake talks of “cat and mouse” games between states pushing for security — and repression — and of activists creatively finding ways to assert their freedom and rights. She calls for export controls on digital surveillance technology as a priority and urges the EU to develop a full digital strategy that can be applied to its external policies.

In yet another session, the need for anonymity online is debated and strongly defended with the chairman summing up by saying that “protection of anonymity is an absolute priority and ISPs (Internet Service Providers) must go as far as possible to defend it.”

As I head off to join a panel on cyber security, privacy and openness, I am sure I will encounter a range of views including some passionate disagreements. But I know too that many, if not all, of these voices will be arguing about how to keep and promote our internet freedom — and if we can build this debate and these networks, then we can stand up to those who are acting both openly and covertly to undermine those freedoms.

Kirsty Hughes is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship

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