Notes from the Stockholm Internet Forum, I

Internet discussions post-Snowden

Last week I attended, for the second year, the Stockholm Internet Forum, organised by the Swedish Foreign Ministry, .SE The Internet Infrastructure Foundation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The topic for this year’s conference was Internet — privacy, transparency, surveillance and control, which shows how the discourse on the Internet has changed post-Snowden. The topic last year had a more optimistic note and centred on freedom of expression and ICT as a tool for development (see the official summary and my blog).

This year’s discussion had a more pessimistic and concerned note, having shifted to issues of privacy and surveillance, although issues such as digital inclusion and ICT and gender also were discussed. The Snowden revelations has made us all more aware of surveillance and concerned about privacy on-line. In fact, the increasing awareness of the scope and range of surveillance, as many people at the conference also stressed, is probably a good thing as it has brought many hidden issues out into the open and encouraged more actions among both activists, civil society organizations, and governments to protect privacy and fight surveillance. All governments collect data but there are significant differences in how they protect their citizens’ privacy, establish and guarantee legal frameworks and constraints on surveillance, and how transparent and accountable they are. Many speakers emphasized that we are at a critical juncture in the debates on Internet governance, privacy and surveillance, and that the coming year will be crucial. Global North and South divisions were also highlighted at the Stockholm meeting. It is obvious that issues of Internet access remain at the forefront in many developing countries, such as Burma where Internet penetration is only 5 per cent. But many participants also pointed out that technologies of surveillance often come from the Global North and are used by governments in the South to control their own populations.

It was inevitable that the question of why Edward Snowden was not invited to Stockholm came up and was criticized both before and during the conference. This was also picked up by different media outlets, including German Cicero and Swedish Aftonbladet, and not surprisingly also by the People’s Daily. This non-invitation detected from the important topics discussed at the conference. The Swedish Foreign Ministry didn’t give any good explanations for excluding him, and a lot of very bad explanations (stressing gender balance, North-South balance etc). One of the arguments that they gave was that they didn’t want to focus on the whistle-blowing aspects of the NSA surveillance, but that could have easily been avoided by focusing on the core issues of privacy and surveillance as was done in a conference in Texas earlier this year at which Snowden spoke via a video link. So I agree with media scholar Christian Christenson that it was a bad move and a missed opportunity on the Swedish organisers part not to invite Snowden to discuss the very topics that he has helped highlight through his revelations.

In two blog I will address some of the topics from Stockholm that I found interesting and approach them keeping China in mind.

Internet governance: Recent meetings and developments

Discussions about the future of Internet governance have been running high in recent years and there is much polarization today between countries who stress global governmentality and a multi-stakeholder approach and resist the UN taking on management of the internet and the dominance of national governments (this include many countries in the West although there are differences between them) and those countries, such as China and Russia, that stress national sovereignty of the Internet under the UN. The debate is being carried out in different forums and with different actors, some only including governments whereas others are more inclusive multi-stakeholder settings. Several of these events and initiatives were mentioned and briefly discussed in Stockholm. Some of these meetings have taken place as a reaction to the Snowden revelations, or have been very much been informed by them.

Another important development last year that was also often mentioned in Stockholm was the report on state surveillance by UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression. This report and the Snowden revelations led to much discussions on issues of privacy and surveillance at the the 24th session of the Human Rights Council in September (see Privacy International and Access Now). The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age was then adopted by the full U.N. General Assembly by consensus on December 18, 2013.

In Stockholm there were some very glowing and positive accounts of NetMundial as an open and inclusive meeting with a clear multi-stakeholder approach. In April, at the initiative of the Brazilian President, NetMundial, was held in Sao Paulo. Brazil has itself taken an initiative to guarantee freedom of expression on the web, the right to privacy and the principle of net neutrality by adopting Marco Civil, a law seen as the worlds’ first Digital Bill of Rights. The meeting however also illustrates the different visions on Internet governance that exist today among governments. Russia, India, and China, along with some other developing nations, thus all reiterated their support for a UN-led, government centric approach to Internet governance.

Looking at NETmundial outcomesOther important events and meetings recently include the Panel on global Internet cooperation and governance mechanisms set up by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) with assistance from The Annenberg Foundation. It consists of global stakeholders from government, civil society, the private sector, the technical community and international organizations, and has recently come up with a report describing a desirable Internet cooperation and governance ecosystem. The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) an intergovernmental coalition committed to advancing Internet freedom worldwide, established in 2011, also held a meeting in Tallinn earlier this year.

As a reaction to different governments’ surveillance and the lack of citizen trust in governments’ behaviour, several initiatives have been taken that attempt to set limits or boundaries to state power. Last year the Necessary and Proportionate Principles created and signed by 280s NGOs and legal experts around the world, asserting that mass surveillance is a violation of international human rights law and proposing limits and boundaries for surveillance, were adopted and have been vigorously pushed in different forums. Seven of these principles have been taken forward by the Freedom Online Coalition, including by Sweden, and seen as a bare minimum based on different constitutions. Several governments have thus begun to formulate fundamental rule-of-law-inspired principles that would lay down boundaries on surveillance, although it remains to see how effective they will be.

One panel in Stockholm was devoted to an Internet study undertaken by UNESCO that also builds on a multi-stakeholder consultation process including governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations and the technical community. The aim is to address issues within the UNESCO mandate related to access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and ethical dimensions of the information society, and future actions in these fields. It will be interesting to see the resulting report that is due to be adopted in November next year.

China’s position on global Internet governance

Some observers have in the aftermath of the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in 2012 talked about a digital cold war, where the dividing line stands between countries advocating universal standards and those emphasising national sovereignty. But some scholars and observers, such as Milton Mueller, are very critical of this metaphor and has analyzed it further. Some participants at the conference did however talk about the Internet as a space threatened by battles for influence between governments. Diverging ideas on Internet governance is today an ideologically contested area that is some ways seems to have replaced, and of course is also related to, the debates over human rights that we saw in the early 1990s.

China’s role and positions in recent developments and meetings were not discussed in Stockholm, although hinted at. However, China is quite active and an important player, and a rather critical voice on issues related to multi-stakeholder approach, global Internet freedom and universality etc. China has since launching its 2010 White Paper on the Internet strongly emphasized that the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty and tried to counteract Western/American influence. This also shows in China’s position on global Internet governance (see for example Milton L. Mueller, “China and Global Internet Governance: A Tiger by the Tail”). In the UN China has sided with other countries such as Russia and argued for an international code of conduct for information security.

During the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December 2012 China for example affirmed its advocacy of a nation-state-based regulation of the Internet.  Whereas China has been quick to denounce the US for its surveillance it is not transparent about its own surveillance or even allow open discussions on the topic. Last Monday, May 26th, China published a report attacking and denouncing American surveillance. This report came in just after the American indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secrets, showing how cybersecurity today is a contested issue in Sino-US relations.

The issue of multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance was mentioned time and again in Stockholm. However, as one of the participants said: what if you don’t have a government that you can talk to in a multi-stakeholder setting? In China the government often seems as the only, or at least most powerful stakeholder, that sometimes invite Internet companies for discussions, or more often to just inform them about their responsibilities, whereas civil society is absent and unable to have any input on discussions on Internet governance or in global forums. There thus are no Chinese organisations fighting for privacy on-line, able to challenge censorship and control, or engage the government in discussions and consultations on the limits of surveillance. In contrast to developments elsewhere, the Chinese government is stronger than ever in trying to control not only the cyberspace but also discussions about it. In February, the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization was thus set up with President Xi Jinping as the head, showing the high priority that is put on cybersecurity by top leaders and that cybersecurity is equated with national security rather than protection of individuals and their privacy. The group is responsible for cybersecurity strategy and coordination and very much related to maintaining control over public opinion. On 20 May, Zhang Feng, the Chief Engineer of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, held an important speech which also explicitly mentioned China’s ‘strive to raise our country’s discourse power in international cyberspace governance.’

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