As governments become more sophisticated in controlling internet access and content, there are no technical solutions to the political problems facing democracy and freedom of expression advocates, a Washington meeting heard yesterday.
Governments are increasingly relying on legal regulations rather than technical restrictions to encourage self-censorship and forcing intermediaries, including internet service providers, to do their bidding.
The issues raised by an important new book, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace, were addressed by a distinguished panel of experts at a meeting hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Online surveillance and censorship growing in scale, scope, and sophistication, writes Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s representative on media freedom, in a foreword to the book. Such developments give “cause for concern about the implications of these trends for media freedom, for unhampered discussion of matters of public interest, and even for political activism.”
New forms of control have superseded the first generation of Internet filtering systems typified by China’s Great Firewall.
Targeted espionage and hacking of democratic and dissident websites is increasing “by leaps and bounds,” said the University of Toronto’s Ronald J. Deibert, one of the book’s authors. The recent Shadows in the Cloud report, for example, detailed attacks on pro-Tibetan organizations, including the use of implanted malware for surveillance purposes.
Rather than simply denying access to information, new second and third generation techniques aim to normalize or legalize Internet control, the book notes, including “targeted viruses and the strategically timed deployment of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, stringent terms of usage policies, and national information shaping strategies.”
Powerful “tectonic forces” are engaged in “intense geo-political competition” across cyberspace, but there are no technical solutions for political problems, Deibert told the NED meeting. Activists were devising ways to circumvent firewalls and other forms of cyber warfare, yet repressive regimes are also innovating and adapting, using legal as well as technical restrictions.
New communications technologies can provide important tools, but “it’s ultimately about grass-roots education, liberalization and democratization.”
The United States and other democratic powers are lagging behind China and similar repressive powers in appreciating the web’s “soft power” and potential for democracy promotion and value propagation, said the SecDev Group’s Rafal Rohozinski, another contributor to the book.
“The rise of the Internet coincided with a major set of political upheavals that culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist bloc,” Rohozinski and Deibert note in a contribution to Access Controlled. “In the euphoria that ensued, the idea of technological redemption, inevitable democratization, and for some, the end of history, coalesced into a popular ideology that equated technology with empowerment.”
But this idea has fed illusions about “liberation technology”. New forms of social media and other communications technologies are “necessary but not sufficient to deliver social transformation,” said Rohozinski.
Powerful countervailing forces are contesting this terrain, as evident in China’s objections to the mere display of the Access Controlled book cover at a recent Internet Governance Forum.
The most technically innovative groups also happen to be the most politically motivated, he said, citing the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (which recently received funding from the US State Department) and the inventiveness of Iranian Green movement activists in combating the Islamic Republic’s cyber warfare.
One of the most disturbing developments is that democracies are joining authoritarian regimes in imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, albeit for laudable motives like protecting children, Google’s Bob Boorstin told the meeting.
“Paradoxically,” the book notes, “advanced democratic states within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—including members of the European Union (EU)—are (perhaps unintentionally) leading the way toward the establishment of a global norm around filtering of political content with the introduction of proposals to censor hate speech and militant Islamic content on the Internet.”
Google and Youtube are blocked in 25 states, including Turkey, which has blocked the popular video site for over a year. Ankara has also introduced law 5651 which requires video surveillance of internet cafe users, Boorstin said.
There is no cookie-cutter solution to defending internet freedom as circumstances differ between states, he said. Compromises may be necessary, but the overriding principle should be to maximize internet freedom of expression wherever possible.
Aiming to avoid another Shi Tao case, a handful of private sector actors joined with human rights groups and socially responsible investors to agree a code of conduct under the rubric of the Global Network Initiative. But European firms, especially state-owned telecom firms, have been notably reluctant to sign up.
Boorstin criticized the Asia Society’s decision to bestow its annual corporate social responsibility award on Cisco, the company that provided Beijing with the routers to build the Great Firewall.
It is too early to say who’s winning the cyber wars, said Harvard University’s John Palfrey, another contributor to the book. He welcomed the State Department initiative on promoting internet freedom but feared that the U.S. is “coming late to the party.”
He stressed the importance of empowering crowd-based strategies, in order to utilize the extraordinary creativity of youth. Google’s Summer of Code programs could be a model for similar initiatives involving youth programmers coding for democratic purposes.