Transcript: Press Conference on Internet Freedom

Assistant Secretary Posner speaking to the press with, from right to left, Brett Solomon, Richard Allan, and Peter Barron

Assistant Secretary Posner speaking to the press with, from right to left, Brett Solomon, Richard Allan, and Peter Barron

Press Conference following the Panel Discussion on

“Internet Freedom: Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Age”

at the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland

March 4, 2011

by

Michael Posner
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor

Ambassador Eileen Donahoe
U.S. Representative to the HRC

Richard Allan
Director of Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa
Facebook

Brett Solomon
Executive Director, Access

Peter Barron
Director, External Relations, EMEA
Google

See the PHOTO GALLERY of this event

A/S Posner: Thank you all for being here.

I just want to make a couple of introductory comments reflective of what we talked about in the session the last hour, and then we’ll get to questions.

Monday Secretary Clinton was here and spoke to the Human Rights Council. One of the underlying themes of her comments was a reiteration of our belief that human rights and a sustainable democracy in countries around the world is essential for the direction we’re heading in the world. She highlighted a range of things that we mean when we say sustainable democracy — rule of law, transparency, accountability, empowerment of women and so forth. But she focused on three particular pieces of it. One is the existence of and the promotion of a vibrant civil society, one that is able to operate without unreasonable government constraint, to challenge government, to hold governments accountable, but also to work with governments.

Secondly, she stressed the link between human rights, democracy and development — the notion of human security.

The third piece which relates to what we’re here talking about today is internet freedom. When we say internet freedom, we’re talking about an extension of, an elaboration of traditional human rights contained in the universal declaration of human rights: free speech, free assembly, free association, freedom of the press.

Today we see the rapid advance of technology. Technologies can enhance free speech. This is really a moment where the internet is the town square of the 21st Century. So there are both great opportunities – but also, as we’ve been discussing in the last hour – a range of new risks and challenges that we face. Governments are both using technology to shut down the internet as we saw in Egypt. They’re also using technology to provide disinformation and to invade the personal privacy of activists, particularly in closed societies.

So the challenge for us I think as governments is both to encourage an open platform for information across borders, without constraints, that’s useful both for human rights, for innovation, for trade, for education, for a range of purpose. A neutral, open platform without government constraints, and at the same time to be mindful of and to be challenging those governments who try to use technology to interfere with the rights of their own people to speak freely, to communicate with one another, and to communicate with the world.

So we’re here in part to talk about the broad context, but also to urge governments, and we are eager to work with governments at the United Nations to reinforce this message of an open internet and to look for ways to reinforce the notion that these are universal human rights and need to be protected.

The last point, and I’ll stop. There’s also a role for the private sector. We had a very good discussion with colleagues here from two companies and an advocacy organization that works with the corporate sector and monitors the corporate sector. There’s a place for individuals, there’s a place for governments, there’s also a place for companies, both as innovators and to provide the technology, but also to assume their own responsibility for the way in which they operate. And part of what we’re now doing is urging that companies work together to reinforce these notions of internet freedom and personal privacy. Several of the companies, including Google on this panel, also Microsoft and Yahoo have joined a multi-stakeholder initiative called the Global Network Initiative, which is an interesting innovative way for companies to work with NGOs and technical experts, universities, to try to begin to find a common platform for the corporate sector to assume its role.

Let me stop there. Thank you. We’re glad to take questions, please.

Question: During the revolution my real question is to Google and Facebook. During the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution there was a lot of talk about the positive impact of Google and Facebook on both revolutions, and that Google helped the Egyptian revolution specifically in connectivity when the internet was shut down. So could you elaborate on your roles in both revolutions and tell us your assessment of that experience?

Mr. Barron: I think the most important point to make here is that it wasn’t technology and it wasn’t Facebook or Google who caused these revolutions. It was the people themselves who were responsible for the revolution, of course helped by the extraordinary advances in technology and communication.

Our position on this is that we are unequivocally in favor of freedom of expression and access to information. We believe that around the world, whichever country you talk about, economies and societies are stronger because of access to information.

Mr. Allan: We provide a communications platform driven over the internet, and that communications platform is filled with content that our over 500 million users around the world choose to share with each other using that tool.

We want to place in context, most of the content that people share with each other is actually about family and friends in our daily lives. Most of the political content is just part of the normal governance process. Its elections happening in every country that are now played out on platforms like Facebook as they are in Egypt and Tunisia, they have been previously in Egypt and Tunisia as well.

At turbulent times such as we saw more recently, I think the value of communication platforms like ours and Google’s and others becomes even more significant, both because people want to discuss the political activities that are taking place at that time and because they also have these basic daily needs still to maintain — their economic activity, their social activity, their connectivity to friends and family outside the zone. Actually one of the major uses of platforms like ours is to be able to say instantly at the click of a button to those two or three hundred people that are nearest and dearest to you, I’m safe, when they see bad things happening. So the restriction of access to us is extremely harmful and regretful, and we would always champion keeping internet access open in countries, whatever the circumstances.

There was an additional issue that took place in Tunisia where the integrity of our systems appears to have been compromised by people working on behalf of the government in that case, and it’s been well documented in public. There again, we saw it as our responsibility for our technicians in the security team to make it an absolute priority to protect the integrity of our systems. Again, we would do that whatever the source of the attack. Our role is to make sure that people are not compromising the systems that we’ve put in place, again, whatever the circumstance of those attacks.

Mr. Solomon: From a civil society perspective I think it’s important for these platforms and others to recognize that they actually are now the front line of human rights defense in many countries and the place in which people expect now to be able to enjoy their human rights. There is a need for fast transition to that recognition internally that human rights structures and policies and procedures are needed in order to ensure that people are both able to communicate in moments of crisis and able to do so safely. And I would put Google and Facebook at the top of the list of organizations that are ahead in that sense. But there are certainly other organizations, particularly corporations particularly in the Egyptian context, and I refer in particular to Vodaphone and France Telecom who were complicit in the shutdown of the internet and were actively taking steps to support the Mubarak regime through the provision of text messages to their customers. I think it’s important that the international community set in place guidelines to prevent companies from taking such steps.

Question: I would like to have some technical details about the restriction of access. Do you have to work with the ITU here in Geneva?

Mr. Barron: Can you repeat the question? Sorry.

Question: In case of restriction access, does Facebook or Google have to collaborate with the ITU or is it just locally in the country where you are living in fact? Or you have to collaborate with the ITU for restriction of access because if I understood well, ITU has to work. You have to work with ITU in case of restrictions of SMS when you send phone messages. So is it the same case for the internet access? How does it work?

A/S Posner: I’m going to let the two companies respond specifically, but let me offer a kind of broader perspective which is I think the direction we are hoping to see this move is towards a multi-stakeholder approach that involves governments, companies, and civil society.

We’re pleased that, for example, the Internet Governance Forum last year renewed its mandate for another five years. The U.S. government is very eager to have an open internet and one where there are not restrictions on content and one that allows people within their own societies and globally to be able to communicate openly.

So what we’re encouraging and will continue to encourage is that we look for and continue to develop these multi-stakeholder initiatives. One of the great aspects of the internet is that it has been dynamic, it has been innovative, it has been open. And Secretary Clinton gave a speech several weeks ago in Washington stressing the need to create and maintain a space for people to communicate on a range of issues. Its human rights issues, trade issues, personal and social issues. We ought to give people the opportunity as much possible to have the space to communicate. I think a multi-stakeholder kind of governance is the way forward to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Allan: In terms of practically how people block our services, that’s pretty much entirely in the power of a national government. So global services likes ours can be blocked in two ways. The first is that they can instruct local internet service providers to block access to a specific site, and that happens on occasion. Or they can seek to block access to the internet altogether as happened in Egypt.

In both cases those are decisions made between governments and their local service providers, typically on order from the government to the local service provider that the local service provider feels that they have to comply with under their local legal arrangements. So we’re effectively powerless in that relationship so our response typically has to be go to the government of that country, ask why it is that they’ve sought to block, seek to respond to any particular concerns they have, and seek to get unblocked. That’s a process which has to happen under a certain circumstance in some countries.

We would say that other countries have gone the other way. For example one of the notable changes recently was that Syria decided to unblock Facebook. Again, the same process occurred but in reverse. The Syrian authorities said to their service providers you should now remove the block from that particular web site.

Again, it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to be here today and why we think it’s important that governments talk about these issues. The ITU isn’t the framework for this, this is a framework — I think it might be described as a multi-stakeholder framework, where people are able to discuss collectively what are the appropriate standards, what are the appropriate thresholds for that kind of action to take place. And from our point of view, to raise those barriers and those thresholds as high as possible so that we have the strongest possible guarantee of an open internet.

Question: I have a question for the U.S. Mission.

Last year you made a reservation with Egypt concerning freedom of expression, and at that time NGO was praising that it did a cross-regional action. But now that we see what’s happened in Egypt, that you worked with a regime that cut down internet, how do you assess this reservation now? Also are you preparing same kind of reservation for this session?

My second question is that Secretary Clinton talked about the reservation on Iran. What kind of other reservation are you working on for this session? Thank you.

A/S Posner: First of all on Egypt we have in general been working here, and Ambassador Donahoe has done a terrific job of this, to create new bridges across regional and blocks of voting in the Human Rights Council. One of those was the effort on freedom of expression that you mentioned; another on freedom of association last fall; on violence against women. We are seeing a positive trend. Certainly the vote last week on Libya, the consensus represents another point of data.

So we will continue to look for partners across the various regions to work with us.

On the specifics of Egypt, we have, and last year I visited Egypt twice, raised a range of concerns about human rights. I was here talking about some of those things. We clearly are attentive to the human rights challenges in the region and are going to be again reinforcing the notion of sustainable democracy. The transition to democracy and human rights is what President Obama has talked about. The Secretary talked about it here Monday. We will continue to push on that.

And where countries like Iran are engaged in a systematic pattern of violations, serious violations, we will play a very active role and we are going to do it in the next few weeks with Sweden and many others from across the world in trying to get a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council that will create a special rapporteur to report to the Council on Iran’s grave human rights record. We are committed to that, we’re going to work very hard on that, and it’s a priority for our government.

Ambassador Donahoe: Mike has spoken to the substantive issue of the human rights situation and freedom of expression in Egypt and also the rationale for the resolution that we will proceed with in March. Just to give you a few more concrete facts that go to your question about the two efforts, on Egypt. With Egypt we will co-sponsor a renewal of the existing mandate for the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the reason is at this juncture more than any other we want to reinforce the freedom of expression in Egypt and everywhere else in the Middle East and around the globe. So we more than ever, we want to make sure that this mandate is renewed and we are doing it in the spirit of encouraging the new Egyptian authorities to move in the right direction and ensure that they continue to protect freedom of speech and assembly.

Second, on Iran. As Mike said, this is a cross-regional effort. We have co-sponsors from every region of the globe — Zambia, Moldova, Macedonia, the Maldives, Sweden, and Panama.

So we understand the value of partners from every region. We also feel like it’s an initiative that will have a lot of support in the Council simply because Iran is an extreme case, has had radical, what we call radical non-cooperation with the existing human right mechanisms at the Council, and it is time for a country-specific rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.

Question: My question is really obvious, but could you talk about Libya right now? Only the government has access to the internet? Or to Google or Facebook? Who has access to the internet there?

Mr. Barron: We have a tool called Traffic Graph which allows users to see what the access to Google’s services on the internet is in given countries around the world. I was just saying in the session that I checked it for Libya last night, and traffic to Google’s services in Libya as of now we understand is zero.

Mr. Solomon: I think that while the traffic that is being seen on that graph is zero, there are other communication mechanisms that are being employed, and I’m not sure for instance whether access to the internet through satellite would show up on that graph. Or whether dial-up, so people making international calls and using the phone lines as a means to access the internet may also not show up there.

So the point is that in the cat and mouse game that is between activists and civil society and governments, there are often ways around a complete shutdown of the internet, which are happening.

Mr. Barron: Let me just say a word about the Speak to Tweet tool which we developed in the case of Egypt which was using voice technology to allow people to get onto Twitter using their mobile phones. So that worked in Egypt and is also accessible in Libya.

Question: We’ve talked a lot about the Middle East. You briefly, in the previous session, touched on China. I would like to ask any and all of you to address that a little bit more.

My question is that I think I’m not the only one who thinks that China is a case apart. It’s not the same as the Middle East. You don’t have a dictator that a bunch of people are trying to pull down in the same way. Obviously perspectives on China and its politics and its political system differ.

But I’m wondering if we are heading towards what could turn into a standoff in the future because China’s approach, and China has the facilities to do it, is to develop its own system. So too bad we can’t find Google in China. We can do other things in China.

This has potential to be a huge commercial battle, not just a political one. So could you please comment on where we are headed? And particularly because everyone has just been talking about multi-stakeholder solutions. Where’s China?

Mr. Barron: We went into China in 2006, and at that point agreed to work with the government to censor some of our results. We did that very transparently. The hope then was that we could open up the internet in China and give access to information to many more people. That was a price worth paying at the time. It didn’t turn out that way and the obstacles put in the way of the open internet in China over the last 18 months or so culminating in a very serious hacking attack on our services led us to take a new approach to China.

So it’s not right to say that our services aren’t available in China. We moved our search service to Hong Kong and we operate an unfiltered service from Hong Kong, but we are no longer comfortable censoring our results for China.

Mr. Allan: We’ve got less to say because we’ve done less in this area, but the current situation is we have no infrastructure in China, and just as I described in response to an earlier question, the Chinese government appear to have given instructions to their service providers to block access to our service and we know that. We’ve done nothing in particular to adjust or alter our service in any way, but we know that because people in China report that typically, except in exceptional cases, they can’t contact us.

A/S Posner: A couple of weeks ago Secretary Clinton gave a speech on internet freedom in Washington. The words Hillary Clinton disappeared from the internet in China. As did the word Egypt several weeks ago.

Bill Clinton about a dozen years ago said that trying to control the internet is like trying to nail jello to the wall. I don’t think it can be done. There are 400 million people with internet access in China. There’s probably almost double that amount with cell phones, with mobile phones. The Chinese government obviously spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to control access to information, but the truth is the Chinese people, like people everywhere, want the ability, the freedom to speak, to listen, to exchange information not only internally but with the rest of the world. I think those demands and desires are only going to grow, and I think in the long term we’re betting on the notion of an open internet as something that will be available in China as it needs to be everywhere in the world.

Mr. Barron: But it’s important to say that we’re absolutely at a cross-roads. The huge potential of the internet to improve people’s access to information and freedom of expression versus the very stringent efforts of governments to try to control that information. The jury is out on who’s going to have the upper hand, and that’s really why we’re saying today that isn’t very important that other governments beyond the United States and Sweden and the Netherlands speak out on these issues and take a stand and why it’s so important that companies work together and join organizations like the GNO. We would encourage companies in the sector to join us in the Global Network Initiative to make a strong case and have strength in numbers on these issues.

Question: I think Mr. Barron sort of answered my question. My question was given the recent events in the Middle East, in Egypt, and the ability to shut down the internet and the mobile phone service, have governments become more savvy in their ability to control the internet? To what extent do you worry that governments are gaining the upper hand? That in fact they’re catching up and becoming very good at controlling, manipulating information on the internet? Have they caught up and are they at risk of actually gaining, taking the lead on this?

A/S Posner: Governments are certainly paying more attention to these issues, but I think the Egyptian example is interesting. You can’t separate effectively political, social, economic content. Again, that’s what the Chinese are trying to do in a very labor-intensive way. And when you shut down the entire internet for any country, any modern country, it’s essentially shutting you off from the world in a way that’s unsustainable. The internet shutdown in Egypt lasted four or five days because the government there recognized that they couldn’t sustain it. Their commercial sector, their educational sector people were saying we’re not going to tolerate this. We can’t tolerate it.

So I think the long term, again, an open internet, broad access, a neutral place where all of these things — politics, culture, social issues, economic issues are available — is inevitably the way we ought to be going. We’re trying to go there and we’re looking for government partners to help us make that a reality.

Mr. Solomon: One thing that we’re saying in terms of governmental authoritarian states in particular were closed and semi-closed in countries, is that they’re learning from each other. That China has the most sophisticated filtering and surveillance infrastructure, but it has been teaching other countries, for instance, like Iran and that those countries are deducing and taking lessons from what happened. So we can see that there’s a narrative that goes from Iran to Tunisia to Egypt, for instance.

In terms of Syria, I question whether there was a reopening because it was a gesture. I think it was also a reopening of Facebook because it’s an opportunity to survey and to monitor. So we need to be conscious of the double-edged sword there.

Can I also just say that access did an audit of the members of the Human Rights Council according to three different indicia, which is the Freedom House Guidelines on Internet Freedom and Press Freedom, Reporters without Borders, and Open Net Initiative. They’re all ranked here so you can see that half of the countries that are members of the Human Rights Council would be considered to be not free or only partly free according to all of those indices. So if you want that, I’ll give it to you.

Question: I just want to know if you have assurances from the caretakers in Tunisia and Egypt in the transitional period that they will respect the internet and freedom of expression? And are you going to do something about Libya, to help those who are opposing Colonel Qadhafi?

Mr.Allan: I think as companies we’ve not had those direct discussions with government, and actually that’s a very interesting question in light of the panel that we have here today. In a sense, we would look to governments to seek that kind of assurance from other governments rather than private companies having that role of seeking a formal diplomatic assurance. It’s very important, the outcome of that discussion is very important to us, but that’s the kind of discussion that’s driven inter-governmentally.

In Libya in particular, we again as a platform don’t have in a sense a political view. We don’t take one side or another. We want to create a platform on which those people who use our service can debate with each other freely and openly. And we’ll do everything we can to make sure the platform is available and to make sure that it’s secure. But beyond that, it’s for the citizens then to have the debate on the platform rather than for us to have the debate.

Mr. Barron: There can be no assurances, obviously. Our view is that wherever the internet is blocked around the world, it’s a cause for great concern. When Egypt was blocked that was obviously a huge deal and obviously the same thing in Libya.

So there are no assurances. We call on governments, democratic governments particularly in Europe but also around the world to stand up and be counted on this issue.

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