Internet Governance Forum - USA
Washington, D.C., October 2, 2009

 

User-generated content, interaction and communication...
Freedom of Expression in a Web 2.0 World

This 2009 IGF-USA session description: “The Internet is becoming a pervasive and powerful medium for user-generated content, interaction and communication. This workshop will explore how US-based interests and values help the IGF to promote free expression in a Web 2.0 world.”

Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice was the panel moderator. Participants on the panel included Bob Boorstin, director of corporate and policy communications for Google; Robert Guerra, project director for Internet Freedom at Freedom House; Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor at the Journalism & Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong; Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Services at the National Archives and Records Administration; and Ambassador David A. Gross, partner at Wiley Rein LLP.

View video excerpts from this session at the following link:

Boorstin, Nisbet, Gross, MacKinnon and Guerra speak - running time 5:00

New tools have limited impact where controls are in place

The Internet Governance Forum-USA workshop on “The Freedom of Expression in a Web 2.0 World,” was built to assess the whole idea of Web 2.0, and the tangent that the panel took grew increasingly bleak in outlining the limitations of new Internet technologies. They said Web 2.0 isn’t all roses. It’s not a park that simultaneously serves as a playground and the ultimate conduit of democracy, it won’t single-handedly save the world and it won’t always be used to better the lives of citizens in the U.S. or abroad.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and previous CNN bureau chief in Beijing, was particularly stern in extinguishing the optimism that emerged during the summer as a result of the contested Iranian election and the subsequent temporary uprising that was partially fed by social media, especially Twitter.

“There’s a naivete that capitalism plus Internet plus Twitter equals democratization,” MacKinnon said, later adding that democracy isn’t inherently going to spread just by handing software to dissidents.

MacKinnon’s extensive experiences with the Chinese government’s attitude toward the Internet provided a stark paralell to the stated goals of President Barack Obama’s administration, voiced at the IGF by Miriam Nisbet, the first director of the Office of Governmental Information Services.

“It’s rather extraordinary that he spent the first full day in office by issuing memoranda…dealing with the openness of government,” Nisbet said. She next quoted Obama: ”All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their government.”

While the stated aim of the U.S. government is to utilize Web 2.0 to open up the government for its citizens, MacKinnon was quick to point out that the Chinese model, which is being increasingly adopted by similarly authoritarian regimes, is built more upon the idea of modern technology helping the government inform itself about its citizens, opening them up to the keen eyes of governmental watchdogs.

In some cases, these crackdowns can be justified. Ambassador David Gross, now a partner at Wiley Rein LLP, leveraged his 25 years of experience in politics and ICTs in the discussion. He told of his experience in trying to encourage a policy of liberalized Internet use to a Tunisian deputy foreign minister. The minister justified his country’s forced limitations on online expression as an extension of the government’s responsibility to protect its people by maintaining social cohesion in a country built up of incredibly factitious factions perfectly willing to fight each other, fights that the Tunisian government asserts would be stoked by open Internet communication.

Robert Guerra, the project director on Internet freedom at Freedom House, roped government surveillance into the increasingly mobile nature of Internet access, particularly in least-developed countries, pointing out that cell phones, by their nature and taking the complicity of the telecommunications industry in conceding to governmental interests for granted, are perfect for authoritarian governments to spy on their citizens. By triangulating a phone’s location, or by utilizing its speakers, receivers and text messages, governments can immediately drop in on any sort of communication deemed to be seditious.

It was agreed that while Web 2.0 has made progress, said progress can largely be credited not to the inherent power of the technology of Web 2.0, but of the lagging pace at which most authoritarian governments have approached the technology, falling behind the counter-culture movement in exploiting the Internet for its own aims.

There’s a reason, MacKinnon said, that China is currently offering to build the Internet infrastructure for several authoritarian countries, because China knows exactly how to receive the economic benefits of increasingly widespread Internet access without suffering the open scrutiny of governments and businesses that one would naturally think would result in concert with an expansion of communications technologies.

Ultimately – running counter to the long-winded, expansive rhetoric that often takes place in discussion panels dealing with governmental policy and communicative ideology – the most apt description of the Web 2.0 element of the world came from Bob Boorstin, director of corporate policy communications at Google, and previous chief speechwriter during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“These are just tools, and they’re nothing more than that,” Boorstin said, indicating that no matter how many bells or whistles, tweets or status updates we may have, the censorship and free expression citizens endure or desire is ultimately up to their own actions and persistence.

-Morgan Little

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