I have just attended the annual Internet Days in Stockholm. The event is organized by IIS (The Internet Foundation In Sweden), which is an independent organization working to promote Internet development in Sweden. The organization is responsible for Sweden’s top-level domain .se (and also .nu), registration of domain names, and the administration and technical maintenance of the national domain-name registry. It also publishes the most comprehensive statistics on the Internet habits of the Swedish population (see English summary of the 2015 report). IIS also publishes other reports on specific issues, recent reports include women in the IT industries, senior citizens’ use of the Internet, and easy to read reports on Tor and other more technical topics. It has also published a book (and made a film) introducing elementary school children (class 1-3) to the Internet. Another very cool project is the virtual Internet museum that provides rich textual and visual information on the development of the Internet in Sweden. The site/museum for example includes reports on the Internet on Swedish television as well as interviews with Swedish Internet pioneers and IT entrepreneurs. One film clip from 1969 shows speculations about the future use of computers for ordering clothes and doing banking transactions, speculations that would have seemed rather wild at the time (that incidentally also shows the very gendered stereotypes of that time).
The Internet Days this year included keynotes by critical voices such as Evgenij Morozov (see the video recording here) and Ethan Zuckerman (here). The topics discussed at the different panels ranged from hotly debated political topics such as privacy and surveillance, more technical topics such as infrastructure and cloud services, coding and digital technologies in the class-room, and how we as individuals deal with the digital in ever increasing aspects of our lives. The event was also a space for different start-ups and makers. All the keynotes got personalized clocks made by 14 year old teenagers, inspired by an American case earlier this year when a young boy was briefly arrested because he brought a home made clock to school that teachers and police initially believed was a bomb.
The first day of the event I attended the panel Hardwiring Freedom (you can read more and watch it here) arranged by Annie Machon, the former intelligence officer for MI5 , and Simon Davies, a long-time campaigner for privacy and a founder of Privacy International. They have started a new organization called Code Red that was set up in 2014 to fight surveillance and political deception, defend privacy, and support whistleblowers. The organization is developing a new indexing platform for human rights, fundamental freedoms and civil society data that would increase the visibility of such information on the Internet. The speakers in the panel included William E. Binney, the NSA whistleblower who left the service already in 2001 after 9/11 (interviewed here on PSB). The panel discussed issues related to privacy and governments’ misguided justifications for surveillance. In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris earlier this month many governments in Europe are again calling for more surveillance and access to personal data of suspected terrorists. However, as pointed out by several speakers, and also in media reports lately, including in this Washington Post article, giving governments more discretion to engage in surveillance doesn’t make us safer or protect us from terrorist attacks. Several countries in Europe have recently discussed laws that give governments’ stronger power of surveillance. The UK has proposed a bill that Human Rights Watch and others see as a threat to privacy and not compatible with existing EU rulings, whereas France earlier this year enacted a new law that also have been heavily criticized.
I have on this blog earlier briefly written on privacy online in the Chinese context, noting the lack of a robust public debate on matters related to privacy and surveillance. Whereas many civil society organizations in the West (as we heard in Stockholm) are engaged in debates on mass surveillance and fight to protect individuals’ right to privacy, sometimes also having an impact on governments, there are no public debates or space for similar organizations in China. The lack of a serious discussion on privacy and surveillance are due to censorship and control of such debates and academic research, and the fact that the state privileges “national security” over individual privacy. The proposed new National Security Law announced by the NPC Standing Committee in the summer will give the Chinese government even more power to control the Internet. The draft has been circulated for comments and both the media (see Chinese version of Financial Time and the newly launched The Initium based in Hong Kong) and Western human rights organization such as Human Rights Watch have commented upon and worried about the laws implications for privacy and press freedom.
Image from an article on clouds in Forbes
Talking about privacy issues in general Ranking Digital Rights has recently evaluated eight of the world’s biggest Internet companies on their public commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. In their study Google scored the highest whereas Tencent, the only Chinese company on the list, came in second-lowest. The issue of privacy is particularly complex when it comes to global Internet companies, one example is cloud services that were much discussed at the event in Stockholm. China was not discussed but it is important to note that international products such as Dropbox and Google Drive are blocked in China (GreatFire.org provides updated information on blocked sites), and thus only accessible if using a VPN although China is also cracking down on VPNs. The Chinese government has prioritized the development of cloud computing (discussed for example in the report Red Cloud Rising: Cloud Computing in China), and domestic cloud computing has developed quite rapidly in recent years with many different companies on the market and even expanding abroad. The issue is of course how safe one’s data is if one are using a Chinese cloud service, a topic I would like to know more about.