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An interview transcript from the first Internet Governance Forum, Athens, Greece Oct/Nov 2006: Steve Ballinger

IGF 2006 LogoThis is a transcript from a series of video interviews designed to assess major issues tied to the diffusion of the internet. It is the record of one of many interviews conducted in 2006 with international internet stakeholders from 18 different nations at the world’s first Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece. The Athens IGF was the first of five annual global events administrated by the UN to focus on discussion of the overarching issues tied to the future of information and communications technologies. More than 1,200 participants shared information, experiences and best practices.

Steve Ballinger – Press Officer, Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization that campaigns for internationally recognized human rights; he coordinates the organization’s media work in China, Iran, Colombia and Europe. Based in London, United Kingdom. 

The Transcript:

Q: Why did Amnesty International send you to this forum?

A: Well, Amnesty International wants to ensure that any agreements and any discussions on the future of the Internet and the governance of the Internet keep human rights and particularly the rights to freedom of expression and right to privacy right at the very heart of the discussions. What we’re concerned about is that human rights might get sidelined and that people will forget that freedom of expression and access to information is right at the very heart of what the Internet is all about. So we’re here to try and make sure that people stay true to that initial vision, if you like, of the Internet.

Q: What policies and/or groups are you afraid are going to take away freedom of expression?

A: Governments, will particularly want to pursue, possibly might want to pursue a security agenda, and we’re already seeing this in some countries and Amnesty’s documented various governments around the world, repressing Internet users, denying access to sites, censoring searches, and in some cases, actually locking up people for the peaceful expression of political opinions on Web sites, in blogs, even just in the content of an e-mail. And so we’re concerned about that. But also about companies as well. And what Amnesty International’s also found and documented is that in major international Internet firms, like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, have colluded with governments in the repression of Internet users by censoring searches, by taking down blogs at the behest of, particularly the Chinese, government. And in the case of Yahoo, by actually providing information that was used to jail a journalist, Shi Tao, who’s now doing 10 years hard labor.

Q: All other forms of media are controlled, in some way, by the government. What makes the Internet different?

A: Well, I think it’s very hard to answer that specifically because we haven’t actually had any models of Internet governance put before us for us to look at. What we want to ensure is that universal declaration of human rights, which enshrines people’s rights, plays a big part and is considered in any consideration of models of Internet governance. And after all, all of the models that are available, which I guess are international governance, national governance and some form of governance by companies. There are dangers in all of these. All of these have risks for human rights, and so Amnesty International wants to ensure that the human rights aren’t eroded and that the fundamentals of the Internet – that you can gain access to information – that you can say what you want within the limits of ordinary free speech – are preserved.

Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the Internet?

A: What we want to see is the full potential of the Internet as a force for human rights being realized. And it does have huge potential as a force for human rights. Whether that’s sharing information, being able to get news out of countries which are typically quite closed. People would be able to use the Internet as a space where they can talk, where perhaps they might not be able to do. We see this happening in a country like Vietnam where the online democracy movement would be the greatest hope for human rights in Vietnam despite the government’s attempt to close it down. And, of course, for Amnesty International as well. Amnesty is all about getting ordinary people to take action, to help the human rights of others. And the Internet provides an amazing forum to do that. We’ll be presenting a petition of 50,000 signatures of people who have signed an online pledge for Internet freedom. And that, just in a very small period of time and quite a small way, really, shows the power of the Internet to motivate and mobilize people. We issued a call to bloggers last week to try and get them talking about online freedoms and taking action on cases as well and publicizing this. So the potential is enormous. I mean, I don’t think Amnesty International has fully realized the potential of it yet. But I think it can be a real force for human rights and we mustn’t let that escape us.

Q: What is your greatest fear for the future of the Internet?

A: I think our greatest fear is that governments will be too afraid of the power of the Internet and seek to shut it down and repress it. In trying to pursue a security agenda some of the things that made the Internet so great and has made it such a success will be lost, such as free access to information and free expression. And I think that is a real, a great danger. Actually that would bring progress backwards several steps if the things that make the Internet what it is are restricted and destroyed.

Q: What one key thing would you ask policy makers to do to ensure a positive future for network technology?

A: I think the one thing we would do is to look to the past, look to how the Internet was founded, what it was all about. And it was about people being able to talk to each other. It was about people being able to get access to information from anywhere in the world. It’s what’s made the Internet such an enormous success, and they mustn’t lose sight of that. The other thing, of course we would want, is that fundamental human rights are always considered in all of the discussions, but it’s sort of saying the same thing: That the Internet is all about accessing information and it’s all about being able to express yourself online. And we don’t want government or companies to stop that.

Q: Describe the future impact of the Internet in one word.

A: Gosh, one word to describe the future impact of the Internet. I would pick a boring word: communication. I should probably say activism, but communication is much more likely.

Q: Could you tell us a little about what is going on with the Iranian blogger and what Amnesty is doing?

A: Yes, well Kianush Sanjari is an Iranian human rights blogger who was arrested, I think, the seventh of October*. And he was taken and held initially in communicato. I think now we know he’s still being denied access to lawyers and to his family. We think he’s being held in Evin prison and he’s at risk of torture. He a student activist and a human rights blogger and I’ve had some of his site translated and he basically reports on human rights violations going on in Iran. We’re very worried about him obviously. He’s being denied access to the rule of law, he’s being denied access to lawyers, to his family, he’s at severe risk of torture, and the chances are that he is being detained because of his expressions of political opinions on the Internet. So what Amnesty International is doing is trying to mobilize people to support him. We’ve issued an urgent action to our membership, calling on them to write to the Iranian authorities. We’ve issued a call to bloggers as well as Web users, asking them to e-mail the Iranian authorities and express their disgust at what they’ve done. And we’re hoping that by publicizing his case, we’ll be able to shame the Iranian authorities into releasing him, or at least treating him fairly. If they suspect that he’s committed a criminal offense then they should charge him with a criminal offense and give him a fair trial. And then if he’s innocent, then they should release him.

*The correct date is Oct. 8

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: One of the other reasons Amnesty International is here is because we’ve been running a campaign called “irrepressible.info,” which is all about getting people to take action online for human rights. We’ll be presenting 50,000 signatures of people who have supported a pledge for Internet freedom. But also on that site people have been able to take action on individual cases such as the Iranian blogger, Kianush Sanjari, but also cases in Tunisia, in Vietnam and in China. And also, people are able to display their support by featuring a badge of censored material on their own Web site. So this comes from a database that we’ve collected of sites that are censored in various countries around the world. And people can show their support for irrepressible.info by putting some of this content on their Web sites and broadcasting censored material and helping to defeat censorship. Hopefully we’re doing our bit to try and help mobilize people to take action against Internet repression.

This transcript and its matching video is offered for use under a Creative Commons Noncommercial License allowing no derivative works. Executive producers, Erin Barnett and Janna Quitney Anderson; chief engineer, Bryan Baker; videographers, Barnett and Baker; editor, Barnett.