You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

OpenNet Initiative Documents The Status of 'Freedom' On The Internet

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, April 24 2012

The Internet, with its all-encompassing penetration into our lives, is easy to take for granted. But as various events over the past year have demonstrated both in the United States and abroad, there are increasing efforts from many sectors aimed at reshaping the open nature of the global network to fit the agendas of national governments, industries and societal norms.

The OpenNet Initiative is one project that has been working for years to document and catalogue those incremental attempts to mold the Internet. The initiative is a joint effort between the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group in Ottowa, Canada.

The group on Tuesday released its "Year in Review" report, which is a roundup of what in their opinion were the most of the significant events that happened in 2011 relating to the various efforts around the world to filter and censor content, and to spy on citizens.

Egyptian authorities sought to shut down access to the Internet from inside their country on January 27, for instance, by forcing all of the nation's Internet service providers to shut down their international connections during political protests. Iran announced the formation of a new cyber police force, whose targets are any entity expressing dissent. The Libyan government used software provided by French and South African companies to monitor the online activities of their citizens. All of these are logged by the OpenNet Initiative.

Even some in the United States apparently contemplated an "Internet kill switch" — the OpenNet Initiative linked to a news summary from last February that reported on a proposal to that effect from Sen. Joe Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut.

On April 1, the Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision said it was exploring the idea of developing a new system of "monitoring" and removing content from the Internet. Less than a week later, the Indian government said that it had blocked 11 web sites from its citizens and those orders came from its judiciary. The list of similar efforts goes on and on throughout the year, with the mainland Chinese government requiring Wi-Fi hot spot users to register with their real-identities through their mobile phone numbers in December.

Why are these series of incursions on digital "freedom" so important to note in 2011? Because 2011 saw some of the biggest political upheaval across the Arab world in recent years, and it was clear that communications technologies played an integral role in helping citizen groups to communicate and organize. Yes, historically there have been mass revolutions that overturned the status quo, but many of the protests last year in Egypt in particular were notable for their non-violent but profound expressions of discontent -- much of it organized through Facebook.

Now we're on the cusp of all those endless possibilities changing. That's because many of these countries around the world want to exert more control over how the Internet works, as Michael Joseph Gross explains in detail in the May edition of Vanity Fair in an article with the headline: "World War 3.0."

The article talks about how representatives from 193 nations are going to converge in Dubai in December to fight over the control over certain elements of the Internet's plumbing.

The deep irony, of course, is that much of that process is run by Americans, but as Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union, puts it in the article, Americans are now the minority when it comes to being the users of the Internet. Touré makes the point: "There should be a mechanism where many countries have an opportunity to have a say. I think that's democratic."

This desire by other countries to have more say about how the Internet runs has existed for a long time, but as Gross notes in his Vanity Fair article, the conflicts over sovereignty, intellectual property, piracy and privacy seem to have reached crisis proportions, and there are no immediately good solutions in sight.

The leaders of the OpenNet Initiative know this, and they explain what some of the countries around the world are already doing to close off the rest of the world to their citizens in a book the group published in 2011 called "Access Contested: Security, identity, and resistance in Asian cyberspace."

Yet the authors Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski remain optimistic. They believe the coming conflicts will get citizens more involved in the running of the Internet, and they'll educate themselves about how the system works. They hope that the process will result in a discussion of "first principles" of cyberspace.

"With a crisis of authority, in other words, could come a constitutional moment for cyberspace," they write.

Let's hope they are right.