Internet Freedom: Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Age – A Panel Discussion
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Executive Director, Access
Director of Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa Facebook
Director, External Relations, Google EMEA
Conference on Internet Freedom
United Nations in Geneva
March 4, 2011
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you all for being here today. We’re very excited to welcome you to this event on “Internet Freedom, Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Age” which is a topic of great interest to everybody around the world at this particular moment.
My name is Eileen Donahoe, I’m the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council here. We are very very honored and pleased to have four excellent outstanding guest speakers with us today to share in this conversation about the vast potential of the Internet and other digital communication technology as mediums for exercising the fundamental freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
So let me start by welcoming back to Geneva the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner, who is the lead official in the government for all human rights issues. Mike Posner was last here, if I recall, as the head of delegation for the U.S. Universal Periodic Review which many of you may have observed, and we are really honored to have Mike here who’s an expert on all of these topics.
Second, we have Richard Allan, actually in the middle, who is the director of Policy at Facebook. He does all public policy work for Facebook in Europe. Prior to joining Facebook Richard was a Liberal Democratic Member of Parliament. He’s based in London and he also worked for the technology company Cisco.
Next we are pleased, at the very end, to have with us Peter Barron who’s Google’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Northern Europe. Prior to joining Google, Peter was, and I guess still is technically, a journalist and he was editor of the BBC program News Night. We’re honored to have him.
And last but certainly not least is Brett Solomon, a very important voice on this panel. He is the Executive Director of Access which is a global movement that advocates for an open and secure Internet, and it’s a very important voice for us on this panel.
Let me just say a couple of very quick opening comments. The Internet, as you all know, has become the public space for the 21st century. It unites not only those of us in this room, but also the approximately two billion people around the world who connect every day on the Internet.
In this digital age the Internet functions as the world’s town square, classroom, as well as the international community’s coffeehouse and meeting place. The value of the Internet derives from the vast variety of activities that people can pursue on it and the ability of people around the globe to communicate about this activity with each other instantaneously.
Every day students around the world email news and pictures to friends, far and near; artists in Berlin discover new ways to create and share their visions; lawyers in Vietnam blog about corruption; small business owners in Kenya track growth; and researchers in Brazil instantly share data with colleagues around the world. So it’s an incredible tool for many many purposes.
In the past few weeks we have all seen the awesome power of the Internet in providing a medium through which individuals have gathered to influence government, rally support, share strife and celebrate change.
An excellent example of the power of the Internet as well as these other digital platforms was captured in a recent interview of someone named Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian citizen who happens to be employed by Google. Wael used different platforms including Facebook and Twitter to send messages promoting change and defense of human rights in Egypt around the world for all of us to see. We would like to show a very brief clip of a CBS interview on 60 Minutes of Wael Ghonim.
Ghonim: The regime was extremely stupid. They are the ones who basically ended themselves. They kept oppressing and oppressing and oppressing and oppressing. Right after I came, I came out of jail, I wrote a status message that we are going to win because we don’t understand politics, because we don’t understand their nasty games. We’re going to win because our tears come from our heart. We are going to win because we have a dream. We are going to win because we’re convinced that if anyone stands up in front of our dream we’re ready to die defending it.
60 Minutes: Two and a half weeks ago when this started did you anticipate this outcome?
Ghonim: When I went on the streets on Tuesday, on the 25th, I was like wow. It’s going to happen. Because the only barrier to people uprising and revolution is the psychological barrier of fear. All these regimes rely on fear. They want everyone to be scared. If you manage to break the psychological barrier, you are going to definitely be able to do the revolution.
60 Minutes: That wall of fear fell in the last few weeks as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians defied their government and demanded change. Helping to lead the charge, 30 year old Wael Ghonim, Google’s regional marketing manager for the Middle East who in his spare time created a Facebook page, posting information about the brutality of Egyptian police. He was especially angered by the killing of a 28 year old Internet activist, beaten to death after trying to expose police corruption.
How important is his story in what happened here in the last three weeks?
Ghonim: By the way, his name is Khalid Said. The name translates into English into Eternal Happiness. His photo after being killed by those police officers made all of us cry, made all of us — Because he is coming from middle class. I personally connected to him. I thought this could be my brother. And I know the police in Egypt, they used to act like they controlled the world. They beat you up. You are someone basically who has no rights. So when he died I personally got deeply hurt. I decided to start fighting this regime.
60 Minutes: The Facebook page was called “We are all Khalid Said”. Soon hundreds, then thousands of others began sharing photos and video of abuse and mistreatment. Within months the number of followers on Facebook grew to half a million. And when he and other organizers posted the dates and locations of protests, people started showing up and posting Internet videos like this one. Many of the organizers never met I person. Their primary interaction was on-line.
If there is no social network, does this revolution happen?
Ghonim: If there was no social networks, it would have never been sparked because the whole thing before the revolution was the most critical thing. Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, this would have never happened.
60 Minutes: If you want to have a free country, if you want democracy, then the Internet is great and all this information can be shared. But isn’t just the opposite then true? If I want to continue to suppress people, the last thing I’m going to give them is access to the Internet.
Ghonim: Block the whole Internet, you’re going to really frustrate people. One of the strategic mistakes of this regime was blocking Facebook. One of the reasons why they are no longer in power now is that they blocked Facebook. Why? Because they have told four million people that they are scared like hell from the revolution by blocking Facebook. They force everyone who is just waiting to read the news on Facebook, they force them to go to the street to be part of this.
So really, if I want to thank anyone for all of this, I would thank our stupid regime.
Ambassador Donahoe: I think that’s it. I think that’s just one powerful story of how digital platforms can play such an important role in social and political change and how individual citizens can be empowered through these platforms to promote and defend human rights.
We’ve all been mesmerized by the popular protests in Egypt and around North Africa and the Middle East in the past weeks. A variety of digital media platforms have made it possible for those of us in Geneva to observe in real time what’s happening in Tahrir Square, Liberty Square, in Sidi Buzid in Tunisia. But notwithstanding the new technology that’s being utilized, it’s important to remember what we’re observing in these popular protests is the exercise of enduring and fundamental rights of free expression, free assembly, and free association.
The exercise of these rights happened to be facilitated through these new digital means but they are the enduring rights that we’ve been here protecting for centuries.
The Human Rights Council is here to protect and promote these fundamental rights. The United States is committed to doing so, and so we have brought together the experts we have here to engage in a conversation about how we can make sure the Internet is used to enhance and promote these rights in the future, and let me welcome Mike Posner to begin our conversation on the challenges we face and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Assistant Secretary Posner: Thank you, Eileen, and thank you all for being here. It’s really a pleasure. I’m looking forward to this discussion.
I want to, if I can, just make a few sort of opening points to set the stage for this discussion, and really follow on a couple of things that Eileen said that I think are really critical to this.
The context for this discussion today I hope will be, and should be, that we are talking here at the Human Rights Council of how we can extend, how we are extending a longstanding debate about a set of fundamental human rights — the right to free speech, the right to free press, the right to assembly, the right to association. And applying those building blocks of what Secretary Clinton on Monday here called “the sustainable democracy”.
We are in a very dynamic place in the world and a place where increasingly the issues of governance, of human rights and democracy are on people’s minds. We are in a place where it is I think incumbent on all of us — governments and citizens and NGOs and companies — to rethink the ways in which we can reinforce the notion of an open public debate in every country about the best way forward.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said time and again that change can’t be imposed from outside, it comes from within societies. At the same time I think it’s important for all of us to think about ways that we can enable an open discussion of critical issues relating to governance, democracy within each society, and what are the building blocks of a sustainable democracy?
When Secretary Clinton Monday spoke here at the Human Rights Council she identified a range of factors like a rule of law environment, strong institutions that protect rights, transparency, accountability, empowerment of women. But she focused in particular on three of those building blocks for a sustainable democracy. The first being the encouragement of strong civil society. The ability of people outside of government to organize themselves, to speak freely, to associate, to operate in a way that, not so much that is always contesting government. Sometimes in partnership, but also with the ability to challenge government and hold government accountable.
The second thing she talked about was the link between human rights, democracy, and development. The notion that a range of issues relating to human security can’t be addressed without understanding the essential link between those three pieces.
The third key thing that the Secretary focused on that we’re here to discuss today is the notion of Internet freedom as an element of this larger discussion of free speech, free association, free assembly.
We are, as the video makes clear and as Eileen talked about, in a place where there is a great fascination and great potential created by new technology, the Internet, mobile phones, and a range of other new opportunities. But again, in the framework of human rights, we need to take this public space for the 21st Century and make sure that it’s an open space, that it’s available to all, that it is both a way for people within a society to communicate and that we have a single platform that allows not only the debate about human rights and democracy political issues, but also as a place for innovation, for education, for development, and for trade.
This is not about devising content. It’s about creating a platform, an open platform, where information is exchanged on a whole range of levels for a whole range of purposes.
So while technology provides opportunities, I think another thing that we ought to be talking about today are what are some of the risks and challenges. I don’t view myself as a cyber utopian. I don’t think change is created by technology, it’s created by people. I also don’t think that the expansion of this technology, the dramatic expansion, comes risk-free. So one of the things I hope our panel will also look at are some of the risks and how from a human rights perspective we can mitigate those risks. What am I talking about?
When people went out into the streets in Tahrir Square carrying a cell phone and they were arrested by state security, the cell phones contained the addresses of their friends and colleagues. When people go on the Internet in China and other countries and post blogs, post information, talk to their friends, there is a government that is very mindful of that activity. Or in Iran. Or in many many other countries, frankly.
How do we deal with the personal privacy? How do we protect human rights advocates and others who dissent from government? What are the ways in which they can help protect themselves? So there’s opportunity and there’s risk. I think part of our challenge today is not just to extol the virtues of technology, but to understand the challenges that it brings and how to mitigate those challenges.
The last couple of comments. There’s a role for government and there’s a role for the private sector. The role for government, and what I’m suggesting is now a strong component of U.S. foreign policy led by Secretary Clinton, is that we stand up for openness. We are not defining the content. Rather, we’re defining the human rights agenda, the traditional human rights agenda here at the Council and elsewhere in trying to determine collectively how states can promote free speech, free assembly, free association.
Once we have those discussions we need to define how the on-line system will work to reinforce those preexisting values and legal universal obligations.
Again, we can’t separate and shouldn’t separate the economic, the social, and the political uses of this new technology. It’s not about a point of view. It’s about protecting the ability of people to communicate across the world for a range of purposes.
I think it’s also important for governments to know when to stand out of the way. One of the great components of the Internet and these new technologies is the fact that they are so multi-faceted and they are a combination of the creativity and the innovation and the economic power of a private sector that’s created a lot of this, some involvement of government, some involvement of citizen participation. We need to avoid the tendency which is so often the case in the world of states to impose controls that undermine this openness. We need to look for future governance models that are multi-stakeholder and that have as a central tenet that the openness, the creativity, the innovation of the Internet needs to be preserved.
Finally with regard to companies, and then I’ll stop. I think there is a role for the private sector. It’s a role that involves on the one hand the continued dynamism and innovation and technology that they’ve exhibited. This is an area where technology is moving so fast that we can barely keep track of it. It provides opportunities for all of us to take advantage. But I think on the other side of the coin, this is a moment for the companies involved in the communication technology universe to take stock internally and to make sure within their own ambit, within their own companies, they’re doing all that they need to be doing internally to ensure that the rights and the privacy rights and the protection of their users is ensured to the extent possible.
I think some companies, and I would cite on this panel Google has been one of the leaders in that regard, internally spending a lot of time and energy, internally trying to figure out what the new lines are. This is a new universe, and companies internally have to take stock. But secondly I would say this is a great moment for companies involved in the range of issues relating to communication and technology to come together. To come together in a way that provides a common platform for addressing Internet freedom and privacy. Again, I would single out Yahoo, Microsoft, Google — all part of the Global Network Initiative — which is a multi-stakeholder organization that came together several years ago with the intent of really trying to find a common platform so that companies aren’t each speaking with a different voice.
I think then there’s a role for individuals, a role for advocates and the NGO community, there’s a role for government, and there’s a role for companies, and somehow collectively I think there’s a great future in this. This is an important part of human rights in the 21st Century, but I think we also have to have our eyes open to some of the challenges we face. Thank you.
Ambassador Donahoe: I definitely want everybody in the audience to be thinking about questions. I would really like to have an interactive conversation. I particularly want to come back to the comments Mike made about the risks and challenges involved and the role of government. I think that’s something we all think about.
But we’re going to turn next to Brett Solomon. To go to the first point Mike mentioned on the role of civil society. He’s a representative here who can speak directly to that question, so we’ll hear from Brett.
Mr. Solomon: Hi, everyone.
I was thinking about George Orwell in the context of “big brother” back in 1949. I wonder whether he would have predicted that just a few generations later that governments and ISPs and social networks would be monitoring our every move on-line, and search engines would be linking together our likes, our dislikes and our political preferences into predictive algorithms. And yet, that same technology which some believe is foisting upon us intrusions upon our right to privacy, is for others catalyzing liberation movements and fueling revolutions. It was great to see Wael speaking here, whom I met in Egypt last year. I think he would never have believed, and you can see the sort of excitement and exhaustion on his face, of what would have come about as a result of his and others’ establishment of that Facebook page and various other social networks.
But the paradox between security, convenience and liberation I think is one of the reasons why we’re gathered here today. What’s transpired in the Middle East over the last couple of months is just, I think the most recent and perhaps the most dramatic example of the changes that the world is facing as a result of the Internet age.
As Mike mentioned, there are incredible opportunities for sharing information, for enhancing collaboration, and for growing our prosperity. But it’s also been a serious concern for governments, for corporations and for individuals.
For example, the Whistleblower Protection laws which I think are viewed as one of the cornerstones of anti-corruption measures, are now being called into question as a result of sites like WikiLeaks and their unleashing of openness, transparency and the like. And we’re seeing also of course that digital activists are using social network platforms to rapidly grow movements. But the fingerprints of their on-line organizing has made it easy to clamp down on their freedom and target their leaders. I myself am in contact with many people who are both using social networks as an opportunity for change and also who have been arrested, detained, and some of whom are still in prison as a result of their on-line activities. Not because of their on-line activities, but because of the information that is gleaned as a result of them.
Of course we’re seeing censorship and Internet filtering which is providing a convenient mechanism for governments to stifle creativity and cripple civil society actors.
One thing that’s really interesting here is that the message of the Internet is most certainly its medium. The instantaneous nature of how ideas are broadcast on-line explains in part the speed at which revolutions have unfolded in places like Egypt and Tunisia. There was a really good piece in the Guardian last week which described how the hierarchical organization of people on-line is unconsciously modeled upon the networks of the web, making it so difficult to control and almost impossible to shut down. Then we see when the Internet was actually shut down in Egypt it backfired and brought more people out onto the streets in even greater numbers.
The decentralized architecture of the web makes it difficult to impose governance standards, something inherently adverse to limitation and boundaries, and to pick up on Mike’s point, I think that’s right. We don’t want to have an over-regulation of the Internet. We don’t want to have a clamping down on the Internet. We want the openness, the multi-polar, the distributed nature of it to thrive, because that’s what’s enabled this explosion of creativity and political participation.
My own organization, Access, is a global movement for digital freedom. Our members are actively involved in campaigns to preserve Internet freedom and to protect the rights of digital activists around the world. It was interesting, of course, terrible to see the image of Internet activists being imprisoned and also being killed.
In order for me to prepare my remarks here, I’ve reached out to our community of 60,000 people around the world, and within the last 72 hours we got responses from people from 170 countries to inform this discussion. So I wanted to convey to you some of the things that we heard from that consultation.
I think firstly, some countries have risen to the occasion, declaring Internet access as a human right and barring the unilateral restriction of access without proper judicial review. And I talk about access to the Internet as a human right, within the context of freedom of expression, within the context of human rights as a foundation for the ways in which states are obligated to their people.
It’s interesting to see that I think that people are ahead of their governments and they’re ahead of international institutions. BBC’s Global Survey last year found that almost four in five people believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental right, even if they don’t have access to those rights themselves.
I think often public policy is not caught up with the lofty rhetoric around Internet freedom. For instance, and I think it’s important that we talk about the domestic operations as well as the foreign policy of countries. The Internet Kill Switch Bill circulating in the United States Congress is an example of that, where the President would have the power, albeit I admit, with some serious caveats, to unilaterally switch off the Internet in the interest of national security. And it’s not just in the United States that that process is happening. We’re seeing a norm developing around shutting off the Internet when it doesn’t serve the interests of governments, both in terms of the legal capacity to do so and the technical capacity to do so. And when we talk about the development of norms, particularly here in the Human Rights Council, I think it’s important that that is a norm that we want to stem.
As I mentioned, I think that Internet freedoms are diverse and in no way the sole purview of authoritarian governments. In open societies the public and private sector are vying to be in control of the information that people can access on-line. Everything from web sites to blogs to videos to photos are increasingly hosted by corporations whose terms of service rarely contain commitments to human rights. And I think it’s this lack of inculcation or incorporation of rights into terms of service and into the principles and policies of corporations that makes it difficult for people like Wael and others to be able to understand and to claim their rights within that framework.
Corporations need to understand the value chain in the ICT industry — all the way from the development of the chip to the creation of the network and to the distribution and use of software.
But it’s true that the ICT community has changed our world forever, and I think that this is the second message, thank you to you guys, is that the Internet generation is deeply appreciative of the platforms that have been provided to civil society.
As we see, when Internet access is available, it quickly becomes embedded in all aspects, but we’ve also seen that Internet access is fragile. It can be blocked. Literally with the flick of a switch or a handful of phone calls. We saw that in the Egyptian case. Four angry phone calls to ISPs essentially brought the Internet down; and many companies including that of Vodaphone were partly responsible for the shutdown of the Internet and also for the closing down of the mobile networks. It’s important that we look at the positive side of corporations, we look at the negative side of corporations, and we lift the standards. I think the GNI is a perfect opportunity to do that. One of many. Indeed, I think there are civil society end users, including all of us, need to make it clear to these guys that we demand standards, and that if those standards aren’t met, that we will move to other platforms.
So one of the things that I think came through in our consultation and what’s so notable about the protests in the Middle East, is the way in which they’ve taken the political establishments by surprise. Old methods of control don’t really work as well as they used to. While social media has not necessarily been the cause of the recent tide of domestic uprising, it has changed the nature of the cat and mouse game I think forever between leaders and those who would resist them.
The Internet generation, and interestingly, this is another thing that came through from our consultation, is that the Internet generation is not people under 25. The Internet generation is people who are connected. That includes 10 year olds, 25 year olds, and retirees, all the way out to — I see some of the older members of the audience nodding. But the Internet generation, unlike generational change which has happened before, has affected one part, a young part of the community; whereas the Internet generation is everybody. I think that’s a reason why it’s so difficult for authoritarian states to control it.
In our survey to over 170 countries, 93 percent of people believe that the government do not have the right to cut off the Internet to their people. More than 80 percent of them believe that human rights must be respected on-line as a priority. That is why the contemporary and successful modern state will embrace the changes that the Internet generation is offering it.
It’s true there are huge ways of the U.S. population where a WiFi connection cannot be found for hundreds of miles. So I question whether we’re ignoring the digital divide and I think increasingly not.
We know that 90 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of those living in rural areas have access to mobile networks. The issue of 3G services, I think 340 million subscriptions as of the end of last year.
So when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, certainly there were substantially fewer countries that recognized and protected the rights set forth in the document, but more than 60 years later we are witnessing the onward march to democracy, freedom and justice, I hope.
The people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have demonstrated that these values are not Western or American or European values or Australian values, as I am, but in fact universal values to which all people aspire. Our communications across the world confirm this.
But I think it’s more than just the state that must adapt. I think there’s a question about courtrooms, and we were talking about this earlier before, about the role of the judiciary, the role of the legal profession that has defined people’s rights to freedom of expression on-line. These precedents such as the case that’s happening Thailand at the moment where a woman is facing 20 years in prison as a web editor for the comments that were posted anonymously on her site. The issue of intermediary liability is something that we should also put an end to.
The judiciary must find an effective means for upholding copyright, libel and national security imperatives but that can’t happen at the expense of basic human rights and freedoms. The legal profession must recognize when rights are at risk on-line and defend people’s ability to comment anonymously, to enjoy their right to freedom of assembly on-line and to have uniform access to the Internet’s content, free from prioritization, free from discrimination, free from censorship, and free from traffic control.
Our movement across the world — sorry, it’s just that we had so many comments through, in order to be able to convey to you. It’s difficult to sort of synthesize them. We did our best.
Our movement spread across the world belays that the international community must adopt some standards, some principles, some coherent positions on Internet freedom to protect individuals, to prevent a restriction of our rights. These standards will reflect the timeless wisdom of those who framed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I don’t think that rights are a static concept. I think they’re something that evolve and grow over time, and facing the new opportunities and threats that are posed through new technology.
So I think that the urgency of this moment cannot be overstated. An enviable right to freedom of thought, conscious religion and expression in the real world has implications in the virtual world, and vice versa. As the discourse around human rights migrates on-line, we can see that the legal and ethical implications do not necessarily have straightforward answers, but here are the top five. Human rights must be respected on-line. The Internet shall be governed in a transparent and multilateral manner. Respect for life, liberty and security shall be protected in cyberspace. Freedom of expression and opinions shall be enjoyed in the on-line environment. And the Internet shall be free from censorship and discrimination. Those were the top five principles that people came back to us with.
Let me just finish with a couple of recommendations to the Human Rights Council, to governments, and to corporations.
Firstly with respect to the Human Rights Council. We think it’s important that the council recognize the importance of digital rights and to use this forum as a space to ensure that those rights, the traditional human rights as they apply on-line are respected, protected and promoted. I understand that the Council is now looking towards a session in June with the Special Rapporteur, and I think that the special procedures mechanism should be taken advantage of.
Similarly with respect to the Universal Periodic Reviews of all United Nations members, it’s time that those reviews also look at digital rights, Internet freedom, and net repression.
With respect to governments, we think it’s important that all governments take a stand on digital rights to ensure the right to access the Internet as part of a component of freedom of expression in a contemporary world, to their national laws, and even into their constitutions. To stop filtering the Internet, stop blocking sites, and stop attacking human rights defenders on-line, either through their web sites or through their communication channels. To Western nations, to prevent the export of advanced surveillance technologies to countries who are used to breach human rights.
Finally to corporations, we think it’s time that corporations audit their policies when it comes to protecting Internet freedom, to ensure that licensure agreements don’t allow for the shutdown of the Internet, to uphold the right of freedom of speech by ensuring that their rights are respecting policies, and infrastructure in order to be able to manage it, and work with states, because I do agree with Mike that there’s a partnership that is needed here.
In closing I’d like to congratulate the Human Rights Council on its decision regarding Libya’s presence in this body, and also to the U.S. for holding this session because I think it’s important that we begin to develop norms that are heading in the right direction.
To honor the people of Tunisia who, one of our members sent us a poem which I think was used by demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt significantly from al-Shaabi. I’ll just read it to you as a final quote.
Then it was earth I questioned,
Mother, do you detest mankind?
And earth responded,
I bless people with high ambition
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you very much for the very interesting assessment you got from your community.
For me I think one of the most interesting things you said and the most challenging things you proposed was the George Orwell idea about how this technology on the one hand is used to track everything we do, everything we buy, everything we read on-line, and on the other hand it is a catalyst for liberation in the most momentous sense. That paradox I find really very interesting.
I hope everyone in the audience is formulating questions around some of these really complex problems, because as we’ve heard from both Mike and Brett there are multiple stakeholders and there are very real tensions here between privacy on the one hand, access on the other. Openness and transparency, on the one hand and security on the other. The positive role of governments on the one hand and on the other hand we don’t want governments to be all that involved. A lot of challenges.
I think we’ll turn now to Richard Allan from Facebook. Here maybe you can touch on some of these questions of the tension that you face as a technology company on access and privacy issues.
Mr. Allan: Thanks very much, Ambassador Donahoe. It is a pleasure to speak here in Geneva at a time I think when the connection between technology and fundamental rights has never been more apparent. It is now a subject of mainstream news broadcasts, this question of how technologies like the one that my company produces and the one that Peter’s company produces are impacting our lives.
Mike, you said I think a very important view from one of the governments as setting the pace on this issue as we go around the world. We see certain governments prepared to take a stand and really try and drive an agenda around the open Internet; and others that we’re still trying to get a significant response from. It’s really important for us that this debate is out in the open. Also to Brett, who has given us perspective from a leading NGO. One that is, I can speak from personal experience, not afraid to challenge companies if their organization doesn’t believe that we’re performing to the right specification. I think that’s absolutely right as well.
In terms of how we see our role at Facebook, we see our mission as being really quite simple. We are developing a service that gives people the power to share with each other and to make the world more open and connected. The classic kind of mission statement. But that’s truly what we believe we are doing. We are creating a platform for people, for human beings to engage with each other about the things that matter to them. We’ve seen the positive effects of that on businesses, on education, on charities, on families. But certainly more recently we have seen the impact of the power of the Internet in connecting people in the midst of some quite turbulent times, and we’ve seen people, as Wael Ghonim told us, react very passionately now to having their connection to the world deprived, for that deprivation, is of their connection to the world. Not just actually because of how it impacts on their political lives, but because of how it impact on all aspects of their lives now. Their economic lives, their social lives and their educational opportunities.
So today I want to emphasize that while Facebook is used for many purposes it is first and foremost a human tool, a tool for people to connect with each other. The way that we see our kind of broader mission is that we reduce barriers to businesses, we create educational opportunities, and we enable civil society organizations including political organizations to build consensus around common issues using this common platform.
I just want to say at the outset, if the experience of developing the service has taught us one thing, it’s that no single entity will be able to determine whether or not we’re able to realize the full power of technology as a vehicle for human connection. Instead the future of technology will be determined by the combined efforts of service providers like Facebook and Google and others, by the efforts of governments such as those represented here today, by non-governmental organizations, and by the people who use the Internet every day. And again, Brett was absolutely right. The pressure that we feel most acutely is the pressure of 500 million users telling us how they feel about the service we’ve developed and how it’s performing, and they do that very loudly on a daily basis.
So we’re quite clear that in order for the world to become more open and connected we need governments around the world to stand united with civil society organizations including private companies in supporting a free and open Internet. We welcome those statements that have been made by some of our political leaders in support of that.
In terms of what we need to do to unlock the power of the Internet, first, we’re quite clear that we do need to lower the barriers to access. You can’t connect and share with people or with your friends if your friends cannot use the Internet and don’t have access to a mobile phone. A developer can’t transform a fledgling startup into a thriving company if no one can download the applications she created; a rice farm in Indonesia cannot tap into global markets if he can’t use his technology to access potential buyers; and there has been great progress in providing access to the Internet over recent years. I know that extending this even further has been a focus, a positive focus of much of the work done by the Internet Governance Forum as an institution formed by the United Nations.
But I think it’s also worth stepping back for a moment to think about what Internet access actually means for people today and how far we’ve come.
The first wave of information technology back in the 1960s and 1970s involved the use of large, heavy technical equipment. It was not that long ago that computers filled up an entire room and couldn’t be used in an ordinary home. Only those with very very deep pockets, large organizations, could afford to build the expensive and complex publishing platforms needed to share content with the world.
Subsequent technology waves granted more access but still weren’t fully opened so that in the 1990s we saw an information web where government records, laws and statutes were published. Great progress. But it didn’t permit citizens really to engage that information. We saw the development of personal publishing tools like blogs, which did precipitate an explosion of citizen journalism, but blogging wasn’t necessarily for everyone. The people who set up blogs tended to be technologically advanced. They were this classic Internet generation that Brett talked about — younger, more technical people.
I think what we’ve seen in this newest wave of innovation, innovation such as the innovation that we produce, is that high tech now means highly accessible. It’s now possible literally for with anyone with an Internet connection very simply and at pretty much no cost to share their views with their friends or with the whole world using simple publishing tools for text, photos and videos. And again, that was a message we heard from Wael. That was ordinary people on the street in Egypt now have the ability to take a photo and publish it out to the whole world, and that photo can have this dramatic impact. So it’s that complete lowering of the barrier now to make it accessible to everyone that we believe is a significant and fundamental change.
So increasingly the tools are available on a range of devices and networks so that Internet access is moving closer to becoming possible for every budget and in every location. As innovation drives technology to become more and more accessible for everyone, we would like to see governments working together to preserve open access to communication tools. The public and private sectors both have a role, a complementary role, to play here in reducing barriers to access.
Having described the importance of reducing the barriers to access, I just want to turn to the type of connection that access enables. The uses of Facebook are actually as varied as the interests of the more than 500 million people who are part of the community, and we don’t define what is interesting to them. We don’t define what they do through our platform. People have used it to find matches for organ donation, they’ve used it to find long-lost partners, they’ve used it to find long-lost family members. That’s the typical and normal use case, if you like, for the service. But of course within that a significant amount of political activity also takes place because politics is important to all our daily lives.
Most of that activity occurs not in exceptional times but as a normal part of governance. So Barack Obama famously has over 18 million fans on his Facebook page, but then President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria also has half a million fans. We’ve seen some amazing activity take place in countries around the world. For example in Colombia where in the 2010 election Juan Manuel Santos defeated Antanas Mockus, and both of those candidates used Facebook extensively. So Mockus has over 800,000 fans on his page. A very youthful and very very dynamic audience. So that in a country where political engagement has often been met with intimidation, death threats and worse, we believe that platforms like ours have created new opportunities for people to express their views.
Of course recently we’ve seen perhaps even more exceptional use of the technology in the Middle East. I just want to really close by talking about those particular challenges now.
On January 3rd of this year we received reports that accounts had been illegally accessed in Tunisia on our service. According to these reports the access had been commissioned by agents of the government in order to steal passwords and then access the personal information in those accounts. Clearly because the safety and security of users is very important to us and Brett is right to highlight how important it is that we maintain the integrity of our systems, we found these security threats to be worrying and problematic.
So our technical team immediately sprang into action. What they did was to expedite a series of security measures they had already been working on. So they pulled together the technology that they already had, if you like, in a pilot phase, and determined to get that out into the field as fast as possible.
That meant that within seven days of the first hacking reports we had rolled out a significant user security response to all of the people in Tunisia so that we could seek to prevent this unauthorized access. We allowed them effectively to log into a more secure version of the web, and that’s a technology which we hope to be able to continue to roll out over this year.
What that’s meant is that once the problems of the service have been overcome, our usage in Tunisia reached record highs. The daily use spiked over anything we’d ever seen before. Today around 2.4 million of the 10.5 million citizens in Tunisia as using our service on a regular basis.
Compared with Tunisia, the Egyptian government took even more drastic steps. As the street process gathered steam the government turned the Internet off altogether. The synapses connecting Egypt to the rest of the world was severed, and the public sphere, at least on-line, was closed. The digital public sphere was closed.
But of course as we heard earlier, flipping the switch only added fuel to the fire. And when Internet was restored, the pent-up demand was overwhelming.
The day after the block was lifted, we saw millions log onto their accounts and registrations of new users rose dramatically, and our numbers continue to grow significantly to this day. Again, as Brett pointed out, this is not all kids who are doing this. In fact our largest growing demographic on Facebook is 35-plus. The vast majority of our users are 18-plus. The under 18s are only a very small proportion, or a relatively small proportion of our user base.
In contrast with Tunisia and Egypt, it’s interesting to note the approach taken by Syria which decided in early February to open access to Facebook where we’d previously been blocked, and the demand was so intense after the government first opened the site that we saw hundreds of thousands of Syrians join within two weeks. Of these new users, around half of them log on every single day. So there’s a huge appetite and thirst for the service.
So the events in the Middle East proved to us the stunning evidence of the power of government to control access to communication. In Tunisia, government compromised the integrity of access. In Egypt, government flipped the switch off. In Syria, government flipped the switch on. In all three it was governments giving the orders. And we’re very clear that the role of government as a determinant of the values of a particular society, a government’s ability to determine for society, for example, where the boundaries lie between open access and national security, a fundamental question again that Brett was right to touch. Those are decisions which do and always will primarily live with government and a legislative response.
But we as companies should and intend to engage with government when considering those issues, both thinking about the potential impact of the decisions they make and informing them technically where helpful.
As I said at the start of my remarks, we’re realistic that our service can flourish only where governments are willing to allow it to flourish, and that’s why we’re so pleased that this debate is taking place today. We do believe that in keeping with the open spirit of the age it’s a time when all the different parties should set out their positions clearly. We’d all benefit from a better understanding of what I would call the rules of engagement as we enter a time where Internet access has the potential to become truly ubiquitous.
I think no matter any differences that we may have between ourselves as companies, NGOs and individuals, I think we all hold a common view that an open Internet will benefit people everywhere.
What we now need are mechanisms that will enable people to realize the full potential of these connective technologies that we’ve built to help transform our private and our public lives, and I hope that today is one step on the road towards developing those mechanisms. We’d like to thank Ambassador Donahoe once again for her leadership on the issue, and thank you for your attention.
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you very much, Richard. Very very interesting, again, in the tensions between the greater openness and connectivity but also then the tension with security and privacy issues. For this audience, I need to underscore this, the issue of the role of government in what you said and the utter confusion that seems to be out there and the different reactions on the part of various governments to the impact this technology can have in their settings. So I hope we come back to those questions at the very end.
We’re going to move on to Google, which has also obviously been challenged in terms of government reaction. Maybe in one of the earliest cases in China in terms of the censorship question. So maybe you can speak to that.
Mr. Barron: Thank you very much, Ambassador, and thank you for having me here.
One of the disadvantages of going last on the panel is that so many of the issues have already been touched upon. I commend the gentlemen for many of their remarks.
Just a word, first of all, about Wael, who you saw there who took part in these extraordinary events in Egypt. In one of the interviews that he gave after those events he rather sheepishly said, “I’m on leave of absence from my job. I hope I don’t get into trouble when I get back to Google.” To which we Tweeted in response that we are extremely proud of him and that he’s welcome back at Google whenever he’s ready, so we hope to see him back at work soon.
I also think it may be worth — I’m quite surprised actually, that nobody has referred to the Universal Declaration in the various comments that we’ve seen so far. So I happen to have it here and I really think it’s worth reading out, although it’s obviously extremely familiar to all of you.
Here is Article 19. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Which is a pretty extraordinary sentence, given that it was written 60 years ago, but it could have been tailor-made for the Internet age.
I was just going to say a little bit about what our key aims and pleas would be in being here today. I think as some of the gentlemen have said, we really are at a very crucial crossroads that we’re seeing played out on a daily basis at the moment. The extraordinary potential of the Internet is there for everybody to see, it is growing fast. And the next phase of that progress is around mobile phones. Five billion subscribers globally and counting, and an increasing number of those telephones connected to the web. So we expect the mobile phone to be the primary way of accessing the Internet within a very short period of time, in the next couple of years.
But of course as many of the speakers have said, there is a similar growth in the interest of governments in getting involved in limiting and controlling freedom of speech. So we’ve seen a growing trend there from four governments back in 2002 who intervened to block the Internet and censor the Internet, to around 40 today. So a very very worrying sign.
I think really our key message today is to say that we’re by no means certain on which side this is going to fall. Everything is in play here. It really falls to governments, to NGOs and to companies themselves to work together to bring a good outcome in these areas.
We’ve talked a lot obviously about the Middle East. I think it is worth saying a word about China. The biggest threat really to freedom of the Internet is among the authoritarian regimes — China, Iran, Vietnam. These countries where you have almost an industry devoted to control of the Internet, keeping one step ahead of those people who are trying to find ways around the firewalls, et cetera. But it’s also worth mentioning that it’s not simply the authoritarian regimes where there are areas for concern. There are also very serious concerns in terms of intermediary liability which was mentioned earlier.
We have executives at Google who were tried and convicted in Italy because of a video which was shown on the Google video platform which showed the bullying of a teenage autistic boy, which is obviously a disgraceful video and it was removed. But the implication of that ruling is that any hosting platform could be responsible for any picture, any blog, any piece of video hosted on their service. So the implications for the future of the Internet as we know it are very seriously challenged with that ruling. We hope that people will gather together to fight against it. We’re obviously appealing that ruling.
In terms of what we’re doing in this area, I’ll run just through some of the activities that we’re involved in.
First of all, we believe that these issues are by no means clear-cut. We stand up strongly and unambiguously in favor of freedom of speech and access to information, but of course we accept that there are limits to freedom of expression. Child pornography is one area where we proactively intervene to remove material. And of course we’re also obliged and willing to abide by the laws and norms and culture of the countries that we operate in. So there’s no one size fits all approach to this. We need to be sensitive to local culture and law and act accordingly.
For example in the case of Turkey, it is illegal to show content which mocks Ataturk, the father of the nation. So in Turkey on YouTube we have agreed not to show those videos. But the Turkish government has gone further and said to us, we want you to remove those videos everywhere in the world, and that’s something that we have refused to do. It goes completely against our principles. So for a long period over the last couple of years YouTube has been banned in Turkey.
In terms of the actions that we’re taking, we believe that transparency is an extremely important tool in all of this. Whether that’s our privacy policies around the world or whether it is the extent to which we would comply with censorship in the various countries we operate in.
For example, when we were operating censorship in China, before we took a different approach last year, if somebody searched for material that wasn’t available because of the laws of the land, we would say to the user, you can’t access that material because your government won’t allow you to do so.
We’ve taken that concept of transparency further in recent months with something called the Government Requests Transparency Tool which anyone can access. It’s a free tool that anyone can use.
With that we show for each country in the world where we offer a service how many requests we’ve had from governments to remove material from our services or requesting information about users. So we believe that by giving people greater transparency, showing what governments are doing, that will help in the process.
We’re not saying by any means that all these requests are illegitimate. In many many cases the requests are to do with criminal activity, and of course it’s right to comply with them. But we believe that just by showing those requests that’s an important step forward.
In the same vein, we also have something called the Traffic Graph which enables users to see what the usage of the Internet is around the world, where we’re seeing outages and so on. So I checked the figures for Libya last night, and traffic on Google’s services in Libya over the last 24 hours is precisely zero.
We are in favor, and we advocate use of circumvention technology in order to help promote freedom of the Internet. I’ll tell you a little bit about something that we did in Egypt and then in Libya over the last few weeks which is called Speak2Tweet. This involved a small company that we recently acquired called Say Now, involved in voice technology. When the situation became very lively in Egypt and the Internet was blocked there, engineers from this company called Say Now who have recently become Googlers, worked with engineers in Twitter over a weekend to create something called Speak2Tweet so that people in Egypt could access the Internet even though the Internet was blocked. So effectively using mobile phones they could send a message and have that uploaded onto Twitter. That has been operating in Egypt and now in Libya.
We accept that circumvention technology, again, can be controversial and difficult because clearly if we are promoting technology which allows for secure communications such as https or anonymous file-sharing, those tools can also be used by criminals and for bad purposes. But I think our position is really that on balance it is better to allow communication and to allow freedom of expression which leads to stronger economies and stronger societies. It’s worth bearing in mind that the telephone is used for good purposes and bad purposes, too. So in a similar sense we believe that giving people the ability to communicate with each other anonymously is a more important principle.
Finally, I just want to say a word or two about joint action which we believe is very very important. As Mike mentioned, three years ago we joined with Microsoft and Yahoo and other technology companies to discuss and negotiate the arrangements for the Global Network Initiative. We’ve talked a lot over the last three years. It’s by no means a silver bullet which can resolve all of these problems but we have made a lot of concerted progress in that time around common standards, for example, for training in terms of government requests and removals, in terms of common standards for assessments when going into new markets. But the main thing that we think it really has a value for and would encourage other companies in this sector to get involved in is the strength in numbers it offers.
In recent weeks in Egypt we’ve seen mobile telephone companies such as Vodaphone coming under intense pressure to pull the plug on their services. The question really is, if those organizations had been part of a broader group of maybe 15 or 20 technology companies who are working together within the GNI, then would the outcome have been the same?
We would also call on governments to stand up and be counted in this area. We commend the comments from the Assistant Secretary and indeed the Secretary of State in recent times, and we also commend the comments of the Netherlands and Swedish governments in this. But what we would like to see is more action and more speaking up from democratic countries around the world and particularly in Europe. It’s a really, really crucial time.
As I said at the beginning, we’re at a crossroads and at the moment where people who believe in human rights, who believe in the freedom of the Internet should stand up and make their voices heard.
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you for that. I particularly appreciate that last comment, for everybody in this audience to encourage our governments to speak up and support, as you said, fundamental right to expression coming right out of the UN Universal Declaration that has been an enduring freedom, that we just need to stand up and protect it in this context.
We’re going to turn to the audience and try to pull as many people into this conversation as possible. I want to highlight a couple of tensions that we’ve all heard here. I think everybody has echoed the sense of extraordinary potential that we have through this new technology, but also the extraordinary risks because of how governments can use this technology as well. And the sense that we are really at a crossroads, I think Peter you just used that expression, and we’re at a pivot point in terms of is this primarily going to be the technology used for good or to restrict freedom? You mentioned we’ve seen an astronomical rise in access to information and in interactivity in recent years, but we’ve also seen a dramatic increase in governments using the technology, either to misuse information or to use the technology to shut down access or actually to threaten people and coerce people because they’ve gotten personal information.
So what is going to be at this moment the best role, what’s the best use of companies’ resources? What can companies do to make sure at this crossroads we go in the right direction? And what are the things, I would frame it, that governments should not do. Not only standing up and protecting these freedoms and asserting these rights, but what should governments not do and how should we be articulating what we want governments to stay out at the same time we encourage companies to facilitate freedom through their technology. I’ll just throw that out there as a backdrop, and then we’ll go to the audience. Maybe we’ll take a couple of questions together.
Question: I wanted to ask, for the corporate members of the panel, we’ve heard about the importance of GNI and the work that it can do, but I noticed that Mr. Allan didn’t comment specifically on it. I’d be interested to hear Facebook’s view on GNI and your potential engagement with it and whether there are other mechanisms that you think can play the same role or where you stand on that.
Also for Mike Posner, to ask a bit about the U.S. government’s response on WikiLeaks which has given rise to concerns within the community about your commitment to freedom of expression and whether or not that may in some cases trump the principles that you’ve announced here and that we feel are so important. Thank you.
Question: Good afternoon. I was supposed to be in next week, but I came in today because I really wanted to be here for this session. I’m very grateful to the U.S. delegation for putting on this event. We’ve certainly followed with incredible interest the work the U.S. is doing on this issue, and particularly Mrs. Clinton’s speech to Georgetown which I think really is just full of excellent guidance for us on this discussion.
Just to say that for Canada our Minister’s come out very clearly that we start from the principle of openness on the Internet and then we look at the other challenges that need to be met in the context of that openness.
And further to Mr. Barron’s point about Article 19 of the Universal Declaration. Yes, it’s there. We’ve got it. The Internet is a platform, it’s not content. And it’s like the telephone, it’s a new platform, but it doesn’t really change the principles within which we operate on that platform. So in that context I think I would offer that the Human Rights Council and the UN indeed is good at articulating principles. It’s not terribly good at micromanaging the planet, but we are good at articulating principles. I think this is an area where we can reaffirm existing principles, apply them to this particular platform, make sure that we start with Internet openness and deal with the challenges that affect that openness in the same way. Then essentially empower people to use this technology.
In that regard I would perhaps offer from the point of view of corporate social responsibility, I think Mr. Ruggie, John Ruggie, the Special Rapporteur on Business and Human Rights, is releasing a very interesting report on business and human rights. He started mostly from the responsibility of natural resources companies and how they operate in challenging conditions, but I think his work has a lot to inform how we reflect on how corporations can engage in this area. Thank you.
Question: Thank you very much. I’m from Scandinavia, but originally I was an Iranian diplomat who defected the embassy and joined the human rights defenders in 30 years.
My question is about the situation in Iran. I was very happy to hear from the Assistant Secretary that there is a role of the governments in these cases to democratize the world and communication, also there is a very crucial role of the private sector. My comment on the role of the government is to promote the enhancement of the opposition activities and have contact with them, and rather not to follow the appeasement policies.
But my question to the gentleman from the private sector is, as the Ambassador said, George Orwell’s big brother also has a tool in misusing these things, using it as a double-edged sword. But the big brother also has a very strong technical capability to jump, to decrease the speed of the Internet, to block the people’s access to it.
Excuse my lack of technical knowledge in this case. Is it possible for the international community technically, in order to stop these government’s heavy machineries or industries, or to try to bypass their capability to block the Internet, is it possible or every local government they have the capacity to have, some of them they buy, all of them they buy their technology from the Western private companies. This is the case unfortunately with the [inaudible] nuclear which is getting highly sophisticated technology to the Iranian government.
So is it possible to stop, to bypass this ability of the governments, local governments, to do such a drastic control and to try to switch off, for example, the mobile telephones in one area, in Tehran, for example, completely cut off? Or Internet access, and filtering them, decreasing the speed? Thank you very much.
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you for that.
I see a number of hands, but we’re going to hold your questions. We’re going to take that collection because there’s a lot of material there. We’ll start with Mike Posner and we’ll give each person here a chance to comment.
Assistant Secretary Posner: If I could comment first on the last question on Iran, it was directed at the corporate participants, but I want to answer it from a government’s perspective.
I think the governments in the next few weeks have an opportunity to act collectively in response to some of the ongoing violations in Iran which are continuing and worsening. We’re certainly going to be part of that effort, but a number of countries from around the world are going to participate in a resolution which will call for a special rapporteur to look at the situation in Iran. So for those governments here, we’d be glad to talk about that, but I think we have an affirmative obligation now to recognize the severity of the violations and to address them in that way.
I think governments also have an obligation to try to figure out creative ways to protect users. There’s a role for the private sector. There’s also a role for governments to be thinking about how we can empower, strengthen individuals in Iran and elsewhere in closed societies to make sure that they at least understand the technology, understand the risks, and to be thinking creatively of how we address those risks.
So there’s certainly a role for the private sector, but I think there’s a role for governments. And obviously there’s a diplomatic role more generally for governments to speak out when they see violations occurring.
I want to answer if I can also very quickly the question on the relationship of Internet freedom and WikiLeaks. I think they’re separate things. The U.S. government’s position has been from the beginning that there was a violation of our law by a U.S. former military person, Private Manning, who took classified private information and he’s being prosecuted under U.S. military law.
The reason information is kept classified is partly national security. It’s also partly to protect the well-being of people we communicate with. One of my man difficult jobs is to assess the various risks that we put before people. There are literally hundreds of cases of people who have been identified in those 250,000 cables who are not happy about the fact that they’ve been publicly identified as talking to the U.S. government. Some of them have had to be moved, some of them we’re in the process of trying to communicate with in a range of countries around the world.
The second thing to say is, some have drawn the conclusion from this that WikiLeaks somehow demonstrate government wrongdoing. I think if you read a lot of the cables as I have, they I think represent more right-doing. There’s an awful lot of content there showing that across the world U.S. diplomats are very involved in day-to-day conversations about how to protect people at risk.
So it’s caused us a lot of heartache, the process, but I think one of the salutary aspects is it does reveal the inner workings of a government that’s actually paying attention to human rights every day.
Finally we are absolutely committed to Internet freedom. This is for us a challenge because of the things I’ve identified, but it doesn’t in any sense diminish our commitment to having an open Internet and we’ll continue to fight for that.
Mr. Allan: Peggy asked me directly about the position on the Global Network Initiative. I think it’s fair to say there are conversations taking place on a daily basis inside the company around our position whether we should join the Global Network Initiative. There will be another one when I return from this meeting, having been told very bluntly by pretty much everybody else on the panel that we should be members of it.
I think there are two different questions being asked. The question that’s being asked of us is why aren’t you members? And the question we’re asking in return is, why should we be members? We haven’t brought those two pieces together. I think again, to be fair, it’s not just us. There are a number of companies in that same position. And it is tempting to think if we all jump together the other companies, some of which have been named today, then we would make GNI the thing that we want it to be. If we stay out, we can’t make that happen. That’s precisely the debate that’s taking place, and I think we’ll come to conclusion within a short space of time, shall we say. A few months. Not just ourselves, but other companies will also have kind of completed that process. If we come to the wrong conclusion, we will be beaten to the end of time, and I’m quite aware of that.
To Vicky’s question, I’d also like to relate that to the last question about access. Ultimately if you control the hardware that allows people to access the Internet, you can both shut it off and you can pretty comprehensively interfere with that communication. So there are certain things you can do to get around that and certain technology we can deploy to make it harder to do that interference. There are certain technologies you can deploy to make the access more robust.
For example, Tunisia had everything pretty much going through a very small number of access points. Egypt similarly had a relatively small number of access points. There are other countries where turning off the Internet would be much harder, simply because there are a lot more cables and bits of satellite and stuff covering that country. So you can make it harder, but really, and this is where I come back to Vicky’s point, really it comes back to governments taking a self-deny ordnance not to do it and enshrining that in law.
The bit I look at is the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8, right to privacy. It’s really interesting. It says essentially you have a right to private correspondence, but states may interfere where it’s necessary and proportionate. So for me it’s having those tests in place that define a very high bar in your local law for what constitutes necessity and proportionality that will give everyone the comfort that we need, rather than a particular technical solution.
So the UK government has an ability to commandeer mobile phone networks but it’s enshrined in law, a particular piece of law, the fact that the bar must be a serious incident, for example a terrorist bombing attack, that requires that to take place.
So if I would urge anything it’s that we see that necessity and proportionality test applied and enshrined in local legal regimes and contestable so that if the government oversteps the mark citizens are able to contest that decision and get real redress.
Mr. Barron: On the GNI question, obviously we’d welcome Richard and others with open arms.
On the double-edged sword point, I’m not sure that’s been addressed. Of course it is the case that these great tools can be used in both ways, and that’s why it’s extremely important that we preserve people’s privacy on-line and it’s also very important to preserve people’s anonymity, so we’re working hard on both those fronts.
Mr. Solomon: Just to pick up on the GNI, the Global Network Initiative which we’ve been talking about. I think there are two issues here. One is about membership, like who’s in it, and I wholeheartedly agree that we need to have a much larger constellation of organizations and particularly corporations that are in it. But it’s also about implementation of the policies and the principles. For instance we’ve seen, for example, that Yahoo is a member of the GNI, but Yahoo has not converted to https as yet, and that has put individuals at risk as a result of their platform being insecure. So it’s both membership and also strong adherence to the principles that are contained within the GNI.
Ambassador Donahoe: We’re going to go back to some hands.
Question: Thank you very much. I’m a professor of international relations at Webster University. But I would like also to introduce myself as a former refugee from Hungary who was 18 in the streets of Budapest in 1956. There are many common features, many memories that come back, both of success and failure.
One success was obviously that the world became aware what was going on in Hungary with the journalists, photographs, radio. There was no television yet. The world knew about it and people haven’t forgotten. It didn’t help much the Hungarians in Hungary because the Soviets managed to put down the uprising. So information is not necessarily sufficient.
Number two, I would like to congratulate my government, I’m an American citizen now, to have organized this session. But I feel that back there in Washington or here in the fortress in Pregny, you forget that the U.S. should reach out to its partners. So I miss some of our partners on the podium, any from either Western Europe or from elsewhere. So this should not look like just the U.S. versus the world again.
The last point I would like to raise is both as a professor of international relations, as an economist. One of the things that makes me worry the most about the Internet is that we have again planned obsolescence built in. This is obviously essentially not just the nature of the technology but it’s also the nature of the corporate strategy. That means that basically you maintain the dominant market share, whether you’re Microsoft or you are Facebook or you are Google by [lafite a navon], and of course that makes obviously the whole system much less free than it sounds. When we are facing a de facto Microsoft monopoly, we are facing a de facto Google monopoly. And Facebook, which is a fantastic thing, is going also there.
Now obviously it is not up to the companies to deal with this issue, but it is up to the governments nationally and internationally really to stick to the idea that it is the common responsibility to maintain the conditions for competition. Thank you.
Question: Thank you very much for the occasion, first of all. I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a woman activist. I’ve been about 20 years in this process, very acquainted with activism and the problems which we encounter during activism. I am working with lots of associations, namely WAFE which is Women Against Fundamentalism in Europe and the Middle East and Africa.
My affair is on Iran in particular because we’ve been very much involved during the uprisings to promote the voice of Iranian women and also activists. Pro-democratic, pro-change activists in Iran. I think their voice was very much pronounced during the 2009 process, the uprising. I think the innovation was worldwide known of using the YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, in order to pronounce their main slogans at least to the world and their desire for change.
But considering the discussions going on in the panel I still think there is, with appreciation of your efforts of course, I still think there is a wide gap between what is practically happening for those activists who are now unfortunately in prison or under torture or even have encountered death such as the last, we call him Facebook martyr, Mohammed Muktari. And what has been said here? Obviously some of it is, to my opinion, very practical if put into practice, but there is a lack.
I would like if you would allow me to point out two main issues. First of all, regarding safety and security of those who are actually activists on the scene in the troubled areas such as Iran. I will give you one instance. In Ashara uprising we managed to get 1,635 clips onto YouTube and this was done for about two days. This is amazing considering the fact that everything was filtered. We used all our resources, but then again, it was a heavy price. We had 46 contacts directly from the streets after Ashara arrests. We took a couple of weeks, only two came on Facebook. This is very comprehensible, I think, since there are still problems. The problems mainly we face is that there is a conflict of interest between those who pose and those who are agents and who pose as activists, and who are organizationally linked with the organization that is policing the Internet on behalf of the certain government, and the real activists.
The problem is as it happens, many of — Facebook, for example. This is just an example since we have someone from Facebook here. One of our Facebook very active pages was closed down because of their intuition to proclaim false things against it. It was Freedom Messenger. It took quite a lot of energy on behalf of us to prove our citizens. I would like to please ask to provide sufficient means for real activists in order to differentiate the difference. Within the organism, whether it’s Google, whether it’s Facebook, whether it’s Twitter, whether it’s Access, because it’s very important.
We had the same problem in Google, closing accounts and so forth. The same problem in Twitter. This happened exactly during the time that we were practically involved in the uprising, which is very annoying.
The second one is the need for really accesses punitive actions for governments who breach what you just referred to as very ideal freedoms that they should realize and recognize. What I mean with punitive is hopefully if governments like the United States which has promoted this platform actually could bring the idea that perhaps they could be actually introduced in the General Assembly or whatever means possible, so that these governments are actually facing punitive actions. This is very important.
With regards to those who are actually absent here, I think a lot of those activists really wanted to be here to voice their problems. There are loads of pages of things that one can say, but obviously the time is very short here. But this is very important to address it here. Thank you.
Question: Thank you so much, Your Excellency. I am from Egypt.
I have some observations to make. Actually it is very clear that Egypt has turned to a new chapter through the power of using Internet. However I wish to record here that only 25 million Egyptian people do have access to the Internet, so I tend to believe that this is not an Internet revolution or Revolution 2.0, it is a real people revolution.
Almost 60 million people in Egypt do not log on Facebook, they do not Tweet, they don’t go on Internet at all. I’m not saying this in order to weaken the argument of the role played by the Internet. Actually I am regular to all Internet governance forum and I am a member of the working group to improve this forum which is doing its job perfectly.
Definitely the Internet was important and likely helped spur on the international coverage of the events unfolding which ultimately led to the spreading of demonstrations. Simply because it was important does not mean it was the sole reason. There were many other reasons. This is my first point.
My second point. I’m really glad to hear that we need to have a multi-stakeholder and transparent mechanism of Internet governance. I’m really happy to hear that there should be a role of government in this regard. Why? Because according to our Telecommunication Act there is an article that allowed the Minister of ICT to instruct the Internet service providers to cut off the Internet. As the gentleman was saying, the Internet service providers obeyed. Why? Because in their contract with the government they had to obey. But frankly speaking, the article in the law says that the government has the right to restore, and I underline the word restore, telecommunications in the case of emergency, whether outside threatening Egypt or from inside. So it was not only this article, it was not the article per se, but it was because of a wrong interpretation to the right of the government.
Definitely cutting off the Internet was a mistake, this is my last point, and we are sorry for that. And personally I’m waiting for an apology from the new Egyptian government to the public. Definitely it was a mistake, but it was not a mistake because it didn’t work out to curb or to suppress the revolution, it was a mistake because it shouldn’t have happened based on the freedom of expression, based on the commitment to human rights.
My last point, I agree we need to properly use the economic, social and political capabilities of the Internet. We need to address access to Internet as a fundamental right, not only from the perspective of the freedom of expression but only from the perspective of the access to Internet as infrastructure. We need to address cyber security. We need to address privacy. Certainly the question would be where? I’m not happy that I haven’t heard the word Internet Governance Forum, because this is a forum where we do meet, governments, civil society, private sector, technical community and academia to discuss many of the issues we have been discussing today. Certainly the Council on Human Rights is a good place to address the issue of freedom of expression, but there are some good discussions going on in this forum as well. Thank you, Madame.
Question: Thank you, A very brief question to Peter Barron. What guidelines does Google have for deciding on requests from state partiers, particularly from Western states from Switzerland, Germany, France, et cetera, to suppress certain sites? And do you have examples in which these requests from states have been denied by Google? Thank you.
Question: Good afternoon. My name is John Henry Morin from the University of Geneva.
I have a question as basically a researcher in information systems. I’ve been working with the Internet for a long time. Haven’t we reached a point where the essence of the problems that we face with the Internet is a new form of problem which is global by nature, something that we have never seen before and for which eventually, and I’m sorry for asking this question in such a place which is the United Nations, but haven’t we reached a point where traditional bodies and traditional remedies, thinking about copyrights or international tax or international law or how countries help themselves with judiciary issues, have reached a limit. And if so, how can we look forward a little bit creatively to see new opportunities?
Ambassador Donahoe: Quickly a comment. Not everyone here is exactly representing the U.S. but it’s a very U.S. dominant panel here. I want to identify a Swedish colleague who is in the audience who is going to raise her hand Irina, because we intend to work very closely with partners at the Council from many other regions on this issue going forward. The United States wanted to signal this is of great importance to us. We want to do whatever work we can, but we do have partners and in fact I believe Sweden may be taking the lead for the membership of the Council.
Assistant Secretary Posner: I just want to respond to three of the questions very quickly. The international professor asked the question about multiple voices in technology. I agree with that, it’s important. One of the things that’s interesting, though, is how fast the technology is moving and how many new actors are coming on the scene. Google was created in 1997; Facebook in 2004; Twitter in 2006. Somebody said to me, five years from now one of the main communication innovations and technologies will use, we don’t know it today because it hasn’t yet been invented. So I think there are enough entrepreneurs, there is enough movement now that that’s a hedge against the kind of monopolistic tendencies, but we have to be aware of that.
Secondly, to our activist friend from Iran or who is working on Middle East issues, I agree very much with what you say. Both governments’ disinformation and the personal attacks against activists are a huge problem. One of the debates we have in Washington that makes me slightly crazy is from people who say all we need is to have one circumvention technology and everybody’s going to be free in Iran or in China and I keep saying there’s no silver bullet. We have to deal with the personal security issues, we have to be attentive to the needs of particular activists in countries, we have to be aware of what the risks are, and how to best use the technology.
Secondly on the issue of sanctions, it’s a step but an important step for the UN in the next few weeks to adopt this resolution here at the Human Rights Council that creates a special rapporteur on Iran. We’re going to work on it with our Swedish colleagues and others, but we need to begin doing that.
Last comment to our Egyptian colleague, one of the things that’s very striking to me and lots of people have said it in the region, we’re talking here about technology in terms of Internet and cell phones. Another piece of this is television. The effect of the images on the screen throughout the region has had a profound effect on the way people operate. Now all of these technologies are coming together, but we cannot forget about the importance of visual images that make people think very differently about their circumstances.
About the multi-stakeholder, we agree with you about the Internet Governance Forum. We’re heartened by the fact that its mandate was renewed for another five years last year.
And shutting down the Internet, last comment. It’s interesting that the Internet, again, it’s not just about human rights. It’s also about commerce. It’s about innovation. What the four days showed us in Egypt is modern societies cannot exist without this connective technology. It is suicidal for governments to think they can shut off from the world and still operate in a commercial environment and a modern environment. That’s one of the strengths of an open Internet and I think we’re going to see that play out again and again in other places. Thank you.
Mr. Solomon: Picking up on the security issue, it is certainly the case that the Internet has been used by dictators and by governments all around the world to spy on, to monitor and so on, and there are strategies in place and I think sort of the cat and mouse game, it’s not just about which technologies are employed, but how has the best defenses as well. It’s about the protection of sites, it’s about the encryption of emails, it’s about off the record chat, and it’s about other mechanisms which are both an interplay of new technology and non-new technological mechanisms in order to circumvent and to circumvent anonymously and securely.
I think there are a number of things that corporations in particular can do, like for instance having very clear processes around content removal which are not clear to activists about why their sites are being taken down or their content is being removed. Around https so to ensure that the sites are encrypted. Many of the sites aren’t. Only one of the world’s top 100 web sites is encrypted across the platform which is PayPal.
I think there also needs to be a concierge service, and I’ve spoken to these guys about that, for activists so that we can distinguish between people who are posing as, and also a way to differentiate within the 500 million users who issues are around life and death, not just about images of them on the weekend, for instance.
Picking up on the issue of sanctions, I think it’s really important that we look at the impact of sanctions on civil society, of people on the other side of the firewall, like for instance sanctions around encryption technology and so on. Often those sanctions actually hurt the activists they’re meaning to help. There’s an [audit] that’s being done by Access actually looking at those sanctions.
In terms of the Internet access in Egypt and across the board, it’s not just about what percentage of the population is connected, it’s which percentage of the population is connected and its ability to influence. It raises the issue around information is not sufficient unto itself. I think there’s a combination of factors, as we’ve seen with Egypt. It’s around timing, it’s about organization that’s happened before the moment when the revolution is about to happen, it’s about connections, it’s about Al-Jazeera. So in a sense it’s about luck, I think. It’s about fate to some extent.
One last word on the role of corporations, I’ve been in contact at the highest levels with Vodaphone about their shutdown, and there are a number of justifications that are taking place internally within the company, largely around staff, around protection of staff. But there are some serious questions about which staff were actually at risk and how did the company know they were at risk, around the licensing agreement that was in place and whether it did actually require them to shut down, and then of course the fact that at some point they decided that they weren’t going to send the text messages, which means that they did have some kind of free will. So it’s a question for companies and their relationship both with their customers, with their shareholders, with the government, and also of course with their users.
Mr. Allan: I want to pick up mainly on the activist points. I would say just speaking from my own company’s point of view, we’re not perfect but we’re getting better. The direction we’re traveling I think is good. This is one of the most challenging areas we face is how to do what we want to do, which is to have a service where, as a company we never want anyone to come to harm through using our service and we want people to be able to use the service for the things that are important to them. So as long as they stick within our rules they should have freedom to use that service.
The situations you’re talking about, and the situation we’re typically dealing with with activists, are some of the most complex and toughest challenges we face. One of the solutions exactly as Brett has described is one we’re working with, so I now, and a number of us in the company, regularly speak with Brett’s organization, with the Committee to Protect Journalists, with Freedom House, with a number of human rights organizations precisely so that we can get a better understanding of what’s happening in each country, who the players are. When there’s a page called We are all Khalid Saed, what does that mean? It’s not immediately obvious until you’ve spoken to people. So I think we’re getting better understanding that we need to do that because we should be serving our customers, whatever they’re using our platform for. As long as for a legitimate purpose.
The other thing that I think is really important is that we’re very clear about our roles, and Brett’s right. We need to do that. Ours is a platform that’s based on a real identity culture and it’s an open platform. That carries with it certain responsibilities, a certain way of working. There are other platforms that are anonymous, based on anonymous identity and much more closed.
I think it’s really important that people understand the different capabilities and the different rules for each platform, but not that they should all be the same. We could have a much longer debate about real name culture. We as part of a real name culture regularly disable the accounts of those who would attack human rights activists. In other words we disable the abusers’ accounts. If the police come to us and say they want to have secret accounts on our site, we say no. So our real name cultures apply universally, and I think that’s really important to define that rule in that way. I think it does have very strong benefits for the use of the site. It’s not something where we’re just stubborn. It’s something that we do because it’s at the heart of why people come to Facebook, because when they speak to people they have reasonable certainty they are who they say they are, but it’s one, again, that I know we will continue to debate, I think.
Mr. Barron: A couple of quick points. First of all on monopolies, you mentioned at least a couple of monopolies there. I would echo Mike’s point. The pace of innovation at the moment and the intense competition between many players — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and others — really means that the users are the great beneficiary of all that. Certainly in our case, there’s absolutely nothing to lock any user in.
On the other point about requests for removal and requests for data, well we’re committed to abiding by the law of every country we operate in, and we don’t think that it should be up to companies like Google and Facebook to make judgments on what material should be removed. That’s for governments and for the law to decide.
So if you want material removed, you have to get a court order and then of course we are obliged to remove that.
We have teams of lawyers engaged in limiting the scope of such requests, making sure that users’ privacy is preserved, and indeed that people are alerted when their data has been accessed. And yes, we often challenge the requests in many cases including requests from the American government where we have appealed and been successful.
Ambassador Donahoe: I think we’re going to stop there. Thank you all for coming and staying, engaging, and we hope to continue the conversation with everyone. Thank you very much.
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