There have been a number of internet freedom conferences this year as the debate intensifies over the role and responsibilities of governments, corporations and individuals online. The Arab Spring has spurred some governments to tighten their grip on the internet, whilst for others it has acted as a wake up call on the power of the internet to promote democracy and change. The German government’s conference in Berlin aimed to highlight the interplay between internet freedom and human rights in the run up to the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
Three main topics that emerged from the participants over the two-day conference were: how can multi-stakeholder governance of the internet be improved? how do we protect the security and privacy of individuals online while Western companies export surveillance technologies? And what is the responsibility of democratic governments to promote free expression online?
It’s clear that there is much discord in the global south over the multi-stakeholder approach especially in regards to the ITU, which is seen as favouring both Western corporations (especially US firms who dominate), Western governments (who have well-funded diplomatic services) and Western NGOs (who sometimes have the resources to cover these large costly events). Delegates emphasised the need to open these events up to more iNGOs and corporate stakeholders generally. On surveillance technologies, as Index has pointed out, as this technology becomes ever-cheaper, its export to ruthless regimes ought to be more tightly controlled. Delegates spoke in favour of this proposition, but there was widespread debate over how this could be enforced in practice. The role of democratic governments was also scrutinised with delegates keen to point out the failures of governments to respect online freedom and the temptation to attempt state control of the internet, a temptation alluded to by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
The conference was held under the Chatham House rule to allow a more open discussion of these topics, but you can read Index’s Storify of the event here.