Elon University

The issue of ‘openness’ is all about free expression’s collisions with control

November 13, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Confrontations like the one that just took place in Myanmar and the one taking place right now in Pakistan make it plain that modern communications are making it tough for authoritarian structures to shut down free speech. The Internet, mobile and satellite communications tools of all sorts are presenting new challenges.

Shazad Headshot IGF 2007“Openness” of the Internet is the theme for a grouping of issues being discussed at the Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro this week, and it strikes directly to the heart of IGF participant Shazad Ahmad, who works for a civil society group named Bytes for All, located in Islamabad, Pakistan. He left home for this conference just as President Pervez Musharraf declared martial law in his country, closing down radio stations and non-state television.

“There is a ban on the import and selling of what I would say are ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – digital receivers and decoders and dish antennas,” he said, explaining that he has still been receiving text messages and e-mail from his friends at home, informing him of the restrictions on free speech. “I denounce this state of affairs, this is our civil right this is a human right. This is deplorable.”

In the past 10 days the Pakistan Supreme Court has been dismissed, independent news stations have been silenced and thousands of opposition party workers, lawyers and human rights activists have been arrested.

Ahmad is upset by the lack of discussion of this important issue at an event where the ultimate goal is to assure positive communications for the common good. “There’s no mention of this at this international UN conference; this is frustrating. I am preparing myself for life without the Internet. A journalist friend of mine told me they are now working with ISPs. Musharraf thinks anything against him to be obscene and immoral. My friend told me total Internet blackout is in the cards.

“The Internet is still creating problems for him. We’re monitoring things closely. People should be free in accessing any kind of information, whatever they want, and they should be free to express their views.”

It’s hard to say how IGF participants would react if Musharraf next takes down the Internet in his quest to control information in Pakistan. It is possible there has been no reaction from IGF attendees yet because information by mobile phone and Internet is still flowing in most areas. But Ahmad’s concerns are sincere and the threat is real. Can the world react in anticipation of an act of such censorship?

Many questions can be raised when you consider the “openness” issue and the Internet.

What happens when a person or group’s free expression on the Internet threatens the very existence of a government or insults a cultural group? Who is going to decide when the government or group that has been threatened is deserving of criticism and when it is not?

What if the same freedoms that allow people communications tools to fight for justice are used to support terror or crime, and who decides what is “terror” or what is a crime?

What if one person’s free expression in a blog posting damages another person’s reputation or violates someone’s privacy?

And if your idea of freedom of expression includes sharing my creative works, my photos, original writing or music, doesn’t that violate my property rights?

In the past, communications censorship took place mostly behind the scenes in non-democratic nations and did not generally get global notice. A government could shut down radio and television and only allow state-supporting publications and government-run media to operate, and its people would be swallowed up by an information vacuum.

The stakes for free speech were high this fall with the violence in Myanmar, where the military government attempted to shut down Internet communication in the face of insurrection by people who were rising up against 45 years of oppression.

Most media reports had been stifled, but citizens used the Internet to share news of massive protests and the Myanmar military junta’s deadly retaliation. At least 10 people were killed, likely many more, and thousands were injured or arrested.

The government in Myanmar cut off Internet access, cut off phone landlines and tried to confiscate mobile phones. But satellite connections were harder to block. Students used hidden cell phones to send out text messages and blogs to the outside world. Memory cards with photos and videos were smuggled out of the country. And the government found that stopping the flow of information is nearly impossible, as scenes of monks in the streets and chaos and violence made their way to the world’s news media and UN officials demanded a meeting to try to resolve the conflict.

A less-important but representative example of public censorship ensued when an anonymous person posted a 44-second, mocking video clip about Thailand’s King Bhumibol on YouTube. The video showed a caricature of the king with an image of feet near his head, a highly insulting portrayal in Thai culture.

The Thai government’s response was to block all of YouTube for all users in the country. After five months of negotiations, YouTube agreed to block access to the offending video clip only for users in Thailand. Did YouTube make the right call? Is it YouTube’s responsibility? Is it any Internet site content provider’s responsibility to censor its content in an effort to respect the individual wishes of all people in all cultures? How can that be accomplished while still allowing people free expression?

By most Western standards it’s easy to criticize the system in China, where
30,000 “Internet police” monitor citizens’ internet use and have blocked many forums and websites from being accessed from computers inside the country.

If you want to get online in China be prepared to check in with the government and register to get your Internet-use permit, and understand they’ll be watching where you go, what you look at and what you say online.

This seems heavy-handed to people with democratic sensibilities, but the government in China argues that it is protecting people from all sorts of dangers: pornography, criminal activity, scams, misinformation and threats to society. They say the government is just doing its job – a line former UN ambassador for China and current UN official Sha Zukang repeated at an IGF press conference Monday, saying, “Freedom doesn’t mean you are free to do anything.”

Since 2000, many governments and corporations have been working to filter or even selectively cut off the Internet and its flow of information, proposing that this will help control crime, keep watch over terror groups and protect children. Governments and corporations also propose that filtering the internet and even setting it up in separately-priced tiers will allow them to smooth the flow of online traffic, provide the finances to make the internet faster and better and establish appropriate control of intellectual property.

Citizens are inclined to agree to accept some formalized structures when they are told that their own monetary gain, children, privacy or safety are at risk. But the very structures that would allow governments and corporations such control over privacy and content can be used to stop free expression and cut off the flow of information needed to build a more open world.

And how can anyone establish rules on these issues that make sense across national boundaries?

When people at the Internet Governance Forum discuss openness, they are also discussing the protection of privacy and its relation to free expression; the relationship of national regulations of free expression and the border-free internet; citizens’ rights to be creative and share information and how those rights relate to the rights of intellectual property owners; and open-source software and standards.

Forcing Western practices and laws onto countries with a different view of Internet openness could lead to a fragmented future in which some governments decide to opt out of the Internet and create their own “walled gardens” with laws and practices consistent with their beliefs. Through discussions such as these at IGF, the world is trying to find ways to maintain a borderless Internet that adequately balances the rights of individuals with the rule of law and the interest of our nations.

Shazad Ahmad says there are 4 million dial-up Internet users and 54,000 broadband users in Pakistan, and it’s easy to shut it down. “I hope it doesn’t happen,” he said. “I am seriously concerned. The way they are treating various other mediums of information they may end up blocking it or jamming it. It is quite possible in Pakistan because all bandwidth is routed through one place.”

Ahmad said he thinks structures like IGF should more directly work to be proactive in situations like this – crisis situations.

“There should be a way forward,” he said, “a concrete way forward which helps people.”

(Michele Hammerbacher and Dan Anderson made significant contributions to this article.)