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'The future of freedom on the internet is at stake'

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'The future of freedom on the internet is at stake'
15:12 CEST+02:00
Internet policy experts gather in Stockholm this week to grapple with online data protection and surveillance issues that everyone who surfs the web should care about, reports technologist Stefan Geens.

Here's why the Stockholm Internet Forum is the most important conference you've never heard of.

This week sees 450 policy-oriented technologists from 90 countries meet at the Stockholm Internet Forum, a two-day conference hosted by Sweden's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its aid agency Sida, and .SE, the foundation responsible for Sweden's internet infrastructure.

Experts from civil society, government and business will tackle "Internet freedom for global development" and its security implications. If this sounds like the typical capacity-building aid summit, it's not - the stakes are in fact much higher. This forum is not (just) about promoting an inclusive and open internet in the developing world; it is also about ensuring a free and secure internet in Sweden.

That's because these days, laws in countries from halfway around the world can affect you directly via your browser. Consider:

*Many of the best internet companies are American, subject to US law. When you trust your email correspondence to Gmail or Facebook, it is US law that protects your privacy. Bad laws, like the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) currently stalled in the US Senate, would allow law enforcement agencies to access your data without a warrant.

*Some countries, such as Russia, turn a blind eye to cyber criminals as long as they target users outside their jurisdictions, giving these gangs a safe haven from which to attack, scam and spam. Their presence also provides plausible deniability for state-sponsored cyber attacks and espionage, such as the 2007 attack on Estonia's banking system.

*China's government requires backdoor access to the contents of popular Chinese messaging services like QQ, TOM-Skype and WeChat. . Connect via Skype to a user in China and your private conversation will be an open book, no matter where you are.

Still, the primary victims of delinquent internet governance policies are most often local users: China's sophisticated online censorship system has made much of the global internet off-limits to its citizens. South Korea's real name registration policy makes it harder for whistleblowers and sources to stay anonymous online. Internet kill switches allow dictators to single-handedly drag their county back into the eighties.

Sometimes, European and American firms contribute to the problem by selling surveillance tools to authoritarian regimes. One such company, Gamma International, let its tools be used spy on the political opposition in Egypt, Bahrain and Malaysia. In 2012, Belarus was caught spying on dissidents using equipment installed and maintained by Sweden's own Teliasonera.

Growing public intolerance for such practices is having an effect, at least in the West: This year, TeliaSonera signed on to industry-wide guidelines for defending freedom of expression and privacy.

These and many other examples over the past decade have prompted a movement towards global norms for internet governance. It's this process that the organizers of the Stockholm Internet Forum are trying to shape, by keeping human rights concerns at the centre of the debate about internet security.

The core message is that internet governance should ultimately serve the citizen-user, rather than the interests of states or corporations. And yet even liberal democracies sometimes get this wrong, drafting overbearing security laws that gut the internet of the freedoms that make it worthwhile.

There have been some successes on the human rights front. In 2011, a United Nations report by the special rapporteur Frank La Rue delineated how human rights law applies to online notions of freedom and privacy. In 2012, Sweden and other nations sponsored a successful non-binding UN Human Rights Council resolution affirming "that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online".

Of course, the same countries that prey on the rights of people offline tend to do so online, using the same excuses.

Today, the situation remains precarious. There are two strongly opposed visions for how best to proceed with internet governance at the global level. The incumbent arrangement sees responsibilities shared among many actors - technical foundations, corporations, governments, civil society NGOs - none of which individually control the process.

The main policy-setting forum for this multi-stakeholder model is the annual Internet Governance Forum, championed by civil society organizations for its inclusive nature, even if the internet's core technical policy body, ICANN, remains based in the US.

In the other camp is a slew of countries - predominantly from Africa and Asia - who feel that the current system is too Western and, well, democratic. In their vision, internet policy is the sovereign right of states, with centralized, top-down control within national borders and multilateral treaties governing connectivity globally. Prominent backers of this model are Russia, China, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia - they recently began promoting the UN's International Telecommunication Union as a state-centric policymaking body for the internet. As a result, much of Europe and North America refused to sign the latest ITU regulatory agreement in December 2012. Many more countries did sign, however. The internet may yet balkanize.

The ball is now in the court of those attending the Stockholm Internet Forum, most of whom defend the multi-stakeholder model of governance. Ideas on the table include making the distributed governance model even more inclusive of Asian and African stakeholders, since that is where most of the world's internet users now reside.

Another proposal is to recast security concerns as compatible with human rights, by redefining security from the perspective of the user. In this same vein, several NGOs have just proposedprinciples for Internet surveillance that would be compatible with human rights. The hope is to win over the fence-sitters in this emerging global schism by convincing them that a freedom-centric internet is the only path to a mature and developed global information society.

If the internet freedom movement is to prevail, it needs more opportunities to debate strategy, generate ideas and strengthen its networks. The Stockholm Internet Forum may just make the difference.

Follow the conference live on May 22nd-23rd via video and via the #sif13 hashtag on Twitter.

Stefan Geens is a technologist at Söderhavet, the award-winning strategic digital design firm. Based in Stockholm, he writes about digital cartography at Ogle Earth and Internet freedom at Dliberation.

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