How to make web freedom a key legal concern

France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has a patchy record on human rights protection, being described in the London Review of Books in 2009 as having eroded “the distinction between philanthropy and combat.”

But his latest piece in the International Herald Tribune is a strong case for internet freedom and democracy and should be saluted:

In 2015, 3.5 billion people — half of mankind — will have access to the Internet. There has never been such a revolution in freedom of communication and freedom of expression. But how will this new medium be used? What obstacles will the enemies of the Internet come up with?

Extremist, racist and defamatory Web sites and blogs disseminate odious opinions in real time. They have made the Internet a weapon of war and hate. Web sites are attacked. Violent movements spread propaganda and false information. It is very hard for democracies to control them. I do not subscribe to the naïve belief that a new technology, however efficient and powerful, is bound to advance liberty on all fronts.

Yet, the distortions are the exception rather than the rule. The Internet is above all the most fantastic means of breaking down the walls that close us off from one another. For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes. It is increasingly difficult to hide a public protest, an act of repression or a violation of human rights. In authoritarian and repressive countries, mobile telephones and the Internet have given citizens a critical means of expression, despite all the restrictions.

However, the number of countries that censor the Internet and monitor Web users is increasing at an alarming rate. The Internet can be a formidable intelligence-gathering tool for spotting potential dissidents. Some regimes are already acquiring increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.

If all of those who are attached to human rights and democracy refused to compromise their principles and used the Internet to defend freedom of expression, this kind of repression would be much more difficult. I am not talking about absolute freedom, which opens the door to all sorts of abuses. Nobody is promoting that. I’m talking about real freedom, based on the principle of respecting human dignity and rights.

Multilateral institutions like the Council of Europe, and nongovernmental organizations like Reporters Without Borders, along with thousands of individuals around the world, have made a strong commitment to these issues. No fewer than 180 countries meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society have acknowledged that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies fully to the Internet, especially Article 19, which establishes freedom of expression and opinion. And yet, some 50 countries fail to live up to their commitments.

We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them. We should provide support to cyber-dissidents — the same support as other victims of political repression. We should also discuss the wisdom of adopting a code of conduct regarding the export of technologies for censoring the Internet and tracking Web users.

These issues, along with others, like the protection of personal data, should be addressed within a framework that brings together government, civil society and international experts.

Another project is close to my heart. It will be a long and difficult task to implement it, but it is critical. It is to give the Internet a legal status that reflects its universality. One that recognizes it as an international space, so that it will be more difficult for repressive governments to use the sovereignty argument against fundamental freedoms.

The battle of ideas has started between the advocates of a universal and open Internet — based on freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for privacy — against those who want to transform the Internet into a multitude of closed-off spaces that serve the purposes of repressive regimes, propaganda and fanaticism.

Freedom of expression, said Voltaire, “is the foundation of all other freedoms.” Without it, there are no “free nations.” This universal spirit of the Enlightenment should run through the new media. The defense of fundamental freedoms and human rights must be the priority for governance of the Internet. It is everyone’s business.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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