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What the UNHRC's "Internet Freedom" Resolution Might Mean

BY Nick Judd | Friday, July 6 2012

When the U.N. Council on Human Rights moved Thursday to express support for freedom of expression online, critics — like one Cuban diplomat — observed that it urges states to focus on the mere 35 percent of the world that has Internet access. Others point out that states like China have an opinion on freedom that breaks sharply with the tenets of countries like the U.S., and that a non-binding resolution from a U.N. body isn't likely to change much inside those borders.

But urging support for free expression on the Internet also supports systems that use one country's freedom of expression on the Internet as a means to connect people who enjoy no such right. That rang true again and again during coverage of the Arab Spring and of Syria, as activists use everything from Skype to satellite phones to the soles of their sneakers to get information into and out of their countries. Those networks can also be semantic rather than technological. Artist and designer An Xiao Mina, who collaborated with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on several projects, explained to me recently that the Chinese language is rife with double meanings and the opportunity for visual language, creating opportunities for subversives and cultural critics to push their messages past censors just as effectively as any proxy server would allow.

Backing the Internet's open nature everywhere — or, in a censorship-centric view, everywhere else — stands a chance at making communication easier even for people in more repressive political climes.

Some activists look at the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution as a solution in search of a problem, an empty gesture. Nathan Freitas, who builds tools for activists to securely communicate using their mobile phones, farmed the resolution in terms of threats to free expression posed in the name of copyright enforcement and counterterrorism.

"As the irrational fear of or actual threat of cyberwar and cyberterrorism increases," Freitas wrote in an email, "what steps will nation states take to combat this, that will infringe up the core essence of this resolution?"

But the utility of a free and open Internet, even to people who don't have direct access to it, certainly gives support of Internet freedom more universal interest. And perhaps it lends credence to the optimists, like Susan Crawford, telecommunications policy expert and visiting professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and School of Law. She wrote Thursday that the resolution was a step forward for human rights online:

It’s advisory. It’s non-binding. It has no enforcement mechanisms attached to it. But it’s the first formal document from the UN that commits nations to protect and promote human rights online to the same extent as they are protected and promoted in the physical world ... [Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl] Bildt says we now have a global coalition backing a global and open Internet. It’s a foundational moment, even though we don’t know exactly what effect this particular document will have. We do know that open, fast Internet access gives hope to a lot of people. As Alec Ross says in a recent essay for CNN, we also know that this will be disruptive. But the benefits of hope outweigh the burdens of disruption.