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Why an open Internet matters

As an Internet Society board member coming from the Middle East, I’m often confronted by the question of whether it is enough to have Internet access, or must we also ensure that the access is open and unrestricted. I hereby lay the case in this short article in defense of the argument that having an open Internet does matter and we ought to ensure it remains so.

For development

With an open Internet, there is a steady stream of ideas that flows to and from users around the world. Sharing ideas freely without restrictions bolsters innovation and development. Let us take the example of online social networks. We have seen how a simple idea of creating a public profile and sharing it across a campus or city results in greater social interaction, leading to millions of users across the world discussing ideas and creating communities.

Social networks today not only promote the emergence of new ideas and discussions on the respective platforms, but also lead to many income-generating businesses in the remotest parts of the world.

When I participated in TEDxSanaa in 2013 in Yemen, I was delighted to attend a talk by entrepreneur Safaa Al-Aghbari who was able to start her own cake-selling business Carmen Cakes Ag from her home using the Internet. Over time, she gained many customers simply because she was given the opportunity to put her ideas into practice without the need for a mediator. There are many similar examples across the world, indicating how an open Internet is literally an open door to innovative and creative businesses that support economic development.

If the Internet were to be restricted and social network websites censored, not only would she lose her business, but her confidence in any future venture she might start on the Internet would be damaged.

For freedom of expression

Another important aspect of the Internet is its inherent capacity to allow all people to speak out and express an opinion on matters that they feel strongly about. In the pre-Internet era, speaking out publicly on an issue was very difficult because a mediator such as a newspaper editor or a radio host would be needed to get that opinion, if allowed, out to the public. Today anyone can use the Internet to make their voice heard. The fundamental right of free speech promotes dialogue and helps address societal problems in a civil and constructive manner.

As someone who had once had my own website ( blocked by the Yemeni government, I have seen first hand how interfering with the open structure of the Internet impacted my freedom and limited democratic participation. But the open architecture of the Internet allowed me to see to it that even then, my website and other blocked websites would still be accessible through other tools and services that worked around the government interference.

An open Internet is therefore necessary to preserve freedom of expression, which is crucial in any democracy. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has upheld freedom of expression as a human right in Article 19, which states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. Hence, ensuring an open Internet is one way to respect freedom of expression and promote democratic participation.

An open Internet is one way to ensure that no one feels disenfranchised and that subjects are addressed in an open and deliberative fashion. Over time, it creates a culture of understanding and tolerance. And while no freedom can be totally unlimited, it is important to recognize that interference in the way the Internet functions by setting up firewalls, practicing surveillance, or implementing other technical limitations without taking proper due processes in a democratic fashion would be counter-productive and do more harm than good to society.

For tackling global challenges

While achieving development and freedom of expression are perhaps among the first priorities in any singe nation state, one thing that makes an open Internet stand out is its ability to harness millions of people to address global challenges.

Over and over again, we hear about the wisdom of the crowd as superior to the wisdom of individuals. Among the classic examples is when 800 people participated in a competition to estimate the weight of an ox in the 1906 Plymouth country fair, the average of the guesses was 1197 pounds, which was almost the exact real weight of the 1198-pound ox.

With over three billion users around the world, the Internet can be seen as the ultimate manifestation of the power that the wisdom of the crowd, particularly when using it to address all sorts of global challenges from climate change to combating epidemics and creating technological advancements. If communities, researchers, scientists, engineers and others were not allowed to openly participate with their ideas and proposed solutions, we would be severely impacting the Internet’s potential and promise to help address problems affecting all of humanity.

For the future

With the Internet still growing as the next one billion users go online, it is more important than ever to ensure that whoever joins the Internet enjoys the power that its openness brings. This openness that manifests itself in the Internet’s open architecture and design, must also be strongly evident in accessibility and reach.

We have come a long way since the first host-to-host message on the ARPANET was sent at 10:30 pm on October 29 from UCLA to the Stanford Research. While we appreciate the enormous strides that the Internet has made over the decades, we must always remember that what made the Internet great in the first place is its ability to allow people like you and me to interact and innovate freely.

The Internet Society and all its chapters, members and staff invite everyone who cares about this marvel of human ingenuity called the Internet to do all they can to keep it open for us – and for the sake of our planet’s future so that we leave to the next generation a legacy we can all be proud of.

Encryption Human Rights Internet Governance

Freedom on the Internet: Where does your country stand?

Out of the 3 billion users on the Internet, how many can trust that their online communications will not be monitored or censored? How many feel safe that they can express their opinions online and will not be arrested for their ideas? How many feel confident in communicating anonymously online?

For us this is a key element of an Internet of opportunity: Internet access is only meaningful if people can trust that their fundamental rights will be respected and protected online as well as offline. Access and trust go together: they can’t be considered as separate parts.

Released today, Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report offers a stark, and concerning, view on the current status of online freedoms. Out of the 65 countries assessed, the report concludes that Internet freedom in the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. Governments that had already expanded their arsenal of tools for controlling the online sphere are now strengthening their application of these methods.

Key trends identified in the report include:

  • Many governments are further shifting the burden of censorship to private companies by pressing them to remove content, even pushing them to proactively monitor their networks. Smaller local companies have little choice but to comply, whereas some international businesses have been more successful in addressing some government requests without resorting to outright takedown. The Internet Society doesn’t believe that companies’ primary role should be to police content online.
  • Surveillance has been on the rise globally, with governments in 14 of 65 countered having passed new laws to increased surveillance over the past year. Related to this, bans and restrictions on encryption and anonymity tools are being more common. The Internet Society believes that these developments hurt Internet users’ trust.

There are some notes of hope however: 15 countries registered overall improvements as part of the Report’s assessment. The year’s biggest gains occurred in Sri Lanka following the January 2015 elections, with unblocked websites and ceasing of prosecutions of Internet users. Cuba also registered an improvement after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States. Research also shows that widespread adoption of HTTPS (TLS) has made the blocking of specific content more difficult.

At the Internet Society, we believe in the power of the Internet to bring all of us closer together. We believe the Internet is a tool that can empower everyone to express their true potential. In practice, that means anything from creating the next successful global app, finding educational treasures online, revolutionizing trade, to simply staying in touch with family and friends at the reach of a button. As we work with many others around the world to bring the rest of the world online, we firmly  believe that the respect and protection of online freedoms is a pillar of trust, itself the basis of all economic and social exchanges online.

We encourage those countries who have made concrete steps toward an open and rights-respecting Internet to go further on this direction. And in those countries where steps have been taken away from an open Internet, we ask those governments – and citizens within those countries – to re-examine the consequences of those actions and move toward an Internet where opportunity is available to everyone.

Where does your country stand in the 2015 Freedom on the Net report?  And what will you do to help improve that standing?

Human Rights Internet Governance

Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers, Thematic debate on Freedom of Expression

As a participant at the Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers thematic debate on Freedom of Expression, I made the following remarks:

The Internet has become a part of everyday life for about 40% of the world’s population and is still growing. The network is no longer connecting only computers; it connects everything from mobile phones to tablets and, tomorrow, to a growing number of everyday objects. Ultimately, whatever the devices we use today or tomorrow, the Internet connects people. 

Since the Internet was created in the early 1970s, it has evolved from a research project to become a central hub for communication, education and commerce for roughly three billion people. 

More than just a technical network, it has also become a tool for fostering democracy throughout the world. 

Obviously, many of us here would agree that the Internet is a key enabler of freedom of expression. In fact, some say it the most powerful amplifier of speech that has been invented to date.

To explore this claim in more detail, let us take a look at four primary aspects of Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 19 reads “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The first aspect is “EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT…”

When relating this aspect to the Internet, I am reminded of the Internet Society’s vision that the ‘Internet is for everyone.’ This means we care that the network empowers individuals. All individuals. As such, we at ISOC work hard to make the Internet as affordable and accessible as possible for everyone. 

For example, in many developing countries, poor connectivity between Internet Service Providers often results in the routing of local traffic over expensive international links simply to reach destinations within the country of origin. In those geographies, ISOC develops partnerships with local governments, NGOs and others to install Internet Exchange Points – otherwise known as IXPs. Doing that helps keeping local Internet traffic local, which makes for faster and more affordable Internet access.

Aspect number two is: “…TO SEEK, RECEIVE AND IMPART…”

On a network like the Internet, information flows can go in all directions seamlessly. Seeking, receiving and imparting are all actions that work without any barriers of hierarchy. In contrast to the broadcasting system, anybody can share and receive information on a level playing field. 

One great example of seeking, receiving or imparting information or ideas via the Internet is crowdsourcing. Now crowdsourcing as a way to deal with innovation problems has existed in one form or another for centuries. Communities of innovators have helped kick-start entire industries, including aviation and personal computing. The difference today lies in the scale and ease with which one person can take his idea and make it a great success.  

Aspect number three: “…INFORMATION AND IDEAS…”

The right to freedom of expression does not just apply to information and ideas generally considered to be useful or correct. It also applies to any kind of fact or opinion that can be communicated. The UN Human Rights Council has stressed that ‘expression’ is broad and not confined to political, cultural or artistic expression. It also includes controversial, false or even shocking expression. The mere fact that an idea is disliked or thought to be incorrect does not justify its censorship.

As such, states must ‘respect’ the right to free expression and not interfere with it. The right also places a positive obligation on states to actively ensure that obstacles to free expression are removed. 

From its very early days, the Internet has evolved through empowered users and communities, and its very success depends on it. While these basic features have clearly had a positive impact, there are also downsides to the Internet’s openness.

Jo Glanville, editor of the Index on Censorship has said that “the Internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as for free speech.” In recognizing the tremendously empowering nature of the Internet in relation to freedom of expression, she underscores some of the Internet’s greatest challenges: suspension of Internet access, slowing down of traffic through bandwidth capping, filtering of websites and/or of their contents. 

Beyond state censorship, which is usually reserved for authoritarian governments, there are also censorship challenges resulting from the actions of countries with strong democratic traditions: namely, the self-censorship that can result from pervasive monitoring.

The Internet is fighting back however. In the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) immediately announced that “pervasive monitoring is an attack on the privacy of Internet users and organizations.” Further, the IETF community expressed “strong agreement that it is an attack that needs to be mitigated where possible, via the design of protocols that make pervasive monitoring significantly more expensive or infeasible.” More recently, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) stated that encryption should be the norm for Internet traffic. We support this statement, which is an important additional step of ongoing efforts by the technical community to address the issue of pervasive monitoring.

And, finally, aspect number four: “…REGARDLESS OF FRONTIERS…”

The right to freedom of expression is not limited by national boundaries. States must allow their citizens to seek, receive and impart information to and from other countries. 

In the unrestricted and borderless space of the Internet, ideas become powerful agents of evolution and transitions. It is unquestionable that the Internet played a significant role in the Arab Spring. More recently are the demonstrations in Hong Kong where organizers used encrypted Firechat to communicate. In all the events that led to these uprisings, the Internet was a key instrument in helping to raise awareness and connecting people’s aspirations for social and political change.

Underpinning all of this is the organic relationship between the Internet and freedom of expression. This relationship is not one of mere chance, but rather the result of specific design choices and considerations that emerged from the development of the technology and associated protocols.

For example, the end-to-end decentralized nature of the network is a fundamental characteristic, which focuses on the edges rather than the center of the architecture. The Internet, by design, empowers users on the margins and acts as a democratic conduit. 

This open and global network is challenging to the existing international governance system, which is based on the sovereignty of the nation state. The very architecture and design of the Internet ignores the concept of national borders.

As a borderless technology, the multistakeholder model to governance has proven to be the best approach to deal with the complex issues related to freedom of expression on the Internet. This methodology brings together governments, business, civil society, and the Internet’s technical and academic communities. 

As part of the multistakeholder process, the Council of Europe’s Guide to Human Rights for Internet Users is a powerful document to reinforce the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. It should be presented as a contribution to the upcoming WSIS ten-year Review. 

We believe the Internet community has a role to play in keeping the Internet open and to work towards collaborative solutions. The Internet community is committed to open standards and policy development processes, to multistakeholder Internet governance, and to the Internet’s global and decentralized architecture. These key characteristics have contributed to the success of the Internet; they also contribute to human empowerment, progress and self-determination. We are looking forward to working with the Council of Europe to promote these shared goals. 

Human Rights Improving Technical Security Internet Governance Privacy

Freedom of expression online: finding the appropriate balance

Every new communication technology requires us to rethink the delicate balance between fundamental rights. Freedom of expression, privacy and security are all part of a fine equilibrium that has been altered from the conditions that prevailed in the pre-Internet era.

In Hungary, where I recently participated in a session* about freedom of expression online, it was easy to see how concrete the Internet has become for people’s lives: some two weeks earlier, thousands of people in Budapest protested against the proposed introduction of a new tax on Internet traffic. Among other concerns, many objected that such a tax would generate unacceptable barriers to people’s ability to seek, receive and impart information and ideas online.

The reason I participated in this conference – and the reason that the Internet Society cares about human rights – is that our organisation was founded on the core belief that “the Internet is for everyone.” This simple sentence means not only that we are working hard to ensure people can access the Internet across the globe and that the Internet is secure and resilient thanks to interoperable technical standards; it also means that we believe the Internet should be a tool that empowers users with equitable opportunities for economic, social and personal development. 

Back in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn (who are also the founders of the Internet Society), invented the TCP/IP protocol. This technical standard founded the core principles of an interoperable and interconnected network of networks, able to connect billions of individuals across frontiers. 

Today, more than 3 billion people, or around 40% of the world’s population, are connected. The impact of the Internet is not only widespread, it is also profound. In a survey of Internet Society members across the globe, 98% agreed that the Internet is essential for their access to knowledge and education. In addition, 86% agreed that freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the Internet.

The Internet has had a tremendous impact on the existing balance between rights; as a result of its enabling power in favour of free information flow, the Internet has created new tensions as part of the complex relationship between freedom of expression, privacy and security. 

For example, pervasive surveillance programs were widely discussed during the session in Budapest. This is not surprising as this issue seems to capture the tension between those three dimensions: national security objectives (security), use of personal information (privacy), and monitoring of people’s communications (freedom of expression). 

Achieving the appropriate equilibrium, while avoiding too many tradeoffs between these rights, is a real challenge, especially on a borderless platform such as the Internet. It will require the Internet community and the rights community to continue working closely together. Issues of freedom of speech online are not solely “rights issues” or “Internet issues”; they are located somewhere in the middle and will need to be addressed by all stakeholders. Human Rights have become a stable issue as part of the Internet Governance discussions, whether at the annual Internet Governance Forum or in the NETmundial outcomes last April.

On the technical front, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has lost no time addressing some of the most critical technical issues impacting privacy and freedom of speech. At its latest meeting, the engineering group (through the voice of the Internet Architecture Board), released a statement in support of the confidentiality of Internet communications. In the next few months, engineers from around the world will focus on deploying security solutions that provide better and more mainstream encryption and privacy for online communications.

The Internet Society will take an active role in facilitating and participating in the conversations required to address these challenges going forward. We consider this an important step in our work to ensure that the Internet remains a favorable ground for users’ empowerment online. 

* 7th Human Rights Forum in Budapest, 20-21 November 2014, hosted by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Encryption Privacy

Freedom of Speech: Rethinking the Role of Encryption

Classically, the encryption of data solves two simple problems:

  1. how to store data securely when it’s at rest,
  2. how to communicate it securely when it’s in motion.

On the face of it, that makes encryption look like an ideal tool for freedom of the press: it can render a journalist’s stored data meaningless to unwanted readers, and protect transmitted data against interception.

Unfortunately, those two “simple problems” have never been the whole story. For one thing, both the journalist and the intended recipient of transmitted data have to be able to decrypt the data… and that gives rise to a number of problems. As former Burton Group and Gartner analyst Bob Blakley puts it: encrypting data is easy; the hard part is managing access to the keys. Neither is this purely a technological problem. Even the strongest encryption can be rendered useless if – for example – its user can be fooled, persuaded or bullied into disclosing the key.

There are also the problems of how to distribute decryption keys securely, how to manage and replace keys over time, and so on. These problems, even if they are not often well solved, have at least been known about for many years.

Then there are the problems to do with regulation of cryptography. I don’t propose to discuss those here – only to note that if you take any technology, from the rock onwards, humans will find both beneficial and destructive applications of it. The key is to legislate for behaviour, not for technology.

Periodically, too, someone will suggest that one regime should support journalists/activists under another regime by providing them with the means of free expression… in the form of some kind of toolkit for secure, encrypted communication. To my mind, this is to return to the original fallacy, namely that encryption technology is enough to solve the problems raised by restriction of free speech.

However, there are other tools we could be developing that don’t raise the same kinds of issue as cryptographic ones, and which would be of practical help to anyone who has a serious concern for their digital privacy. In particular, let’s look at the problem of digital footprints.

Managing your digital footprint

The more devices we use, and the more networked our world becomes, the bigger the digital footprint we leave behind us with every online action.

Some of us  already take some steps to reduce our digital footprint – for instance, clearing cookies and browser caches after each use – but how many of us even know about, let alone manage, all the other data trails we create as we use our devices?

  • Have you ever cleared your machine’s “thumbnail” cache?
  • If you have ever transferred your mobile SIM from one handset to another, how many of your contacts’ details did you leave in the onboard storage of the old handset?
  • And, to return to the crypto theme: if you installed a secure communications app on your smartphone and it used its own key pair, where are they, and what Certificate Authority do they identify?

How many of these pieces of information would you be happy for someone else to find – especially if freedom of speech is a particular concern?

Here’s my suggestion: rather than get into debates about whether to air-drop crypto survival kits to dissidents, why not develop tools that help people see and manage the digital trail they create on their own device(s)?

This wouldn’t prevent those who wish to from encrypting their stored data or their communications. It would, however, help reduce some of the other data we’re all generating – day in, day out – on a growing range of personal devices that, increasingly, reveal more about us than we reveal about ourselves. Whether specifically to safeguard access to free speech, or to protect our privacy more generally, this is something that ought to be of value to all of us.


Human Rights Internet Governance

Internet Governance and Human Rights at the IGF

The 3rd day of the 7th IGF was dedicated to human rights. A timely debate!! No less than 9 workshops tackled aspects at the intersection of human rights regimes and internet governance, and many more touched upon their specific implications. Out of these, three  were focusing expressly on freedom of expression, and another three explored the policy implications and means to reconcile adequate protection of human rights and internet dynamics.

As a panelist in the session entitled ‘Human rights on the internet: legal frameworks and technological implications’, i had a chance to speak about the emerging paradigm of internet rights, current tensions triggered by the borderless nature of  the internet and the existent international legal instruments, and recent developments on this issue in the UN ambit. A thorough discussion of legal and technical aspects of implementing an adequate human rights regime preceded the Q&A session, which addressed interesting complementary aspects, such as recent legislation from Russia requiring blacklisting of websites for pornographic content which entered into force 8 days ago.  In the case of this specific example, the effects of passing such a law – beyond predictable intended and unintended consequences – are yet to be seen, given the particularities of the implementation system in the Russian context.

More generally, the struggles to strike a balance between human rights, legal frames and technology are rarely surfacing at other internet governance events, where such issues would be rather dealt with in a disconnected manner.  Against this background, the IGF is the best place to bring that up, and to create (hopefully) lasting networks of interest. As digital migrants and digital natives become more aware and more engaged in the drafting of norms and principles for the digital age they want to live in, the change they aim to see is one of the many seeds planted at the IGF. Hope you all stay close by to see it growing!