Saying Goodbye to Internet Freedom

Wherever you are, whatever field you will, no doubt, be constantly hearing about the changing “world of communication”, and “digital democracy”, and “social media management”. The thing is, the internet has changed, well, everything. This fact seems particularly poignant today as it is this year’s biggest online shopping day, huzzah for the economy.

Politics? Just look at Obama’s digital campaign strategy. The first time around it was pretty remarkable. The second time, even more so. Camp Barack (and Mitt too, but it didn’t really stick) created which tracked users and their communities, including contact lists and calendars, reaching that pesky under-29 age group that no longer has (or uses, for that matter) a listed phone line. With the endless supply of social media platforms if you don’t exist online, well, you don’t exist.

This minefield of opinions, battle for democracy and a large number of cats does not seem to have any guidelines or regulations. Yet clearly not everything goes. Just refer back to the student who was jailed for a tweet, or one for a Facebook post. Yes, the comments are grossly insensitive and downright abhorrent but I cannot understand how the same justice system can dish out jail-time to some and not others. Or did those high profilers ask for it?

Compared to what is happening abroad, however, this is all child’s play. Youtube is banned in Pakistan, Russia is going after bloggers and in China the authorities will shut down anything they deem inappropriate. At present as many as 42 countries filter and sensor content. Unsurprisingly, some will attempt to use this week’s ITU ten-day talk in Dubai, out of all places, further their agendas. Incidentally, there is something whimsical about holding a summit about the future of the internet in a country where Skype is illegal.

Freedom House has identified politically motivated monitoring alongside attacks on bloggers as the biggest threats to Internet freedom to emerge in the last two years, with Estonia having the world’s freest access, whilst Iran, Cuba and China are on the other side of the spectrum. The collective governments will be trying to reform a 25 year old telecommunications treaty put in place a long time before the popularisation of the internet.

Judging by today’s headlines one could only assume that we have woken up in some strange socialist/fascist nightmare – anything from ‘UN controlling the internet’ to the ‘end if internet freedom’ and ‘UN’s sneak attack’, with Google in the trenches (although, Google seems to be more against the ‘sender party pays’ tax than anything else).

Faced with these facts my confusion is twofold. Firstly, the ITU does not hold any actual legislative power. Is this not a talk about talking? My understanding is that the UN will not have a direct, or an indirect for that matter, role in controlling the internet. Clearly, I must have missed something.

Secondly, is this really an appropriate level to discuss internet freedom or lack of thereof? I have always been under the impression that a sovereign nation has a right to choose. The lack of legislative tools has not stopped our judiciary from taking punitive action nor has it meant that those in the Middle East have the freedom to say what they please.

Of course Russia, China, and the like will try and use this opportunity to justify their actions and encourage further constraints. The positive – the ITU has brought internet freedoms into the spotlight. It is about time we started taking these abuses seriously, and not by attacking a supra-national organisation that has opened a debate, but by going directly to the source.

Leave our internet to us.

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