Stockholm Internet Forum: Balancing rights and security
22 May 2013

Does surveillance and monitoring chill free expression? Is population-wide mass surveillance always a bad idea? Amongst many questions and debates at today’s Stockholm Internet Forum, the answers to these two questions are surely obvious – yes to both, writes Index on Censorship CEO Kirsty Hughes from Sweden.

But not for Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who made it clear at the conference that he thinks while surveillance invades privacy and needs proper judicial control, it is not a free speech issue.

And European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom couldn’t quite bring herself to agree that monitoring an entire population is always wrong, suggesting if it were ever necessary then it, too, would need appropriate judicial permission and control.

We have to hope most European politicians have a stronger understanding of human rights online. Certainly, in lively debates at plenary sessions and on the conference twitter feed (#sif13), it was clear their views had little support with intense exchanges over how to protect free speech and other rights online.

Bildt’s view that democratic governments can be trusted with surveillance and censorship online was challenged by many attendees. The idea that the world can be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries was a recurring issue with perhaps the predominant view being that neither governments (democratic or not) nor companies should be trusted with our digital freedom but should be challenged, monitored and held to account for the myriad of ways they control the internet space.

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Big web companies were also challenged in Stockholm. The BBC’s Stephen Sackur asked Google’s head of free expression Ross Lajeunesse if he thought all Google users knew that US laws applied to the search engine even when it operates outside the States (along with local laws). When Lajeunesse said he wasn’t sure, Sackur suggested Google make this clear on its home page. We will see if this happens since Lajeunesse made no commitment. A civil society activist asked from the floor how he could discuss with and lobby Google in the way that in open societies we can lobby governments. Lajeunesse said Google values dialogue. But the question of how we hold companies with large and increasing control of the net to account is a big one. There are no clear answers.

Facebook was challenged on this, too. Asked why the social media giant doesn’t produce a transparency report as Google and Twitter now do, no satisfactory answer was forthcoming. Facebook did announce it is joining the Global Network Initiative which brings web companies and human rights groups together. Index on Censorship is a member of the GNI.

University of Toronto Professor Ron Deibert argued persuasively that cybersecurity will remain dominated by defence, military and foreign affairs departments — with freedom rolled back — unless civil society engages more with security issues. Others disputed this suggesting many government security measures and arguments actually create insecurity. Deibert insisted though that basic democratic checks and balances are being eroded in the name of cybersecurity and civil society must ensure rights online.

Along with the calls to hold governments and companies more strongly to account, there were heated discussions of how to stop the wide misuse and export of surveillance technology, challenges to telecom companies to start to take their human rights responsibilities seriously, calls for more transparency on how takedown decisions are made and a host of other debates. This year’s net forum so far is an equal mixture of disturbing and inspiring – disturbing in the extent and range of threats to digital freedom, inspiring in the energy and ideas of so many of the participants committed to standing up to those threats.

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