Note: This is a text I was asked to write, after IGF 2017, in Geneva. Not so surprisingly, it was never published by the organization that asked me for it .
It was written around 12 January 2018. Target audience was young people.
The Internet Government Forum is an annual meeting, organized by the United Nations, that brings together governments, private sector and civil society to discuss Internet governance. IGF 2017 happened last month in Geneva, Switzerland.
IGF is a world in itself. Bringing people all over the world to discuss Internet related issues results in a rich diversity of topics and interests. The technical aspects of the Internet infrastructure, the Internet role in developing countries, gender and minorities challenges on the web, net neutrality, online safety for children, Internet of things, governmental surveillance, cyber warfare… are just a few examples of the diversity of IGF. With multiple different sessions, and even entire side events, happening at the same time, for several days, it is up to each participant to chose which ones to attend. Therefore, any report made by a participant of IGF will necessarily be highly subjective, based on his own experience and preferences, and does not reflect the globality of the event itself.
I was at the IGF as a member of the Copyfighters, a movement of young people all over from Europe that aims to make copyright fair for the younger generations, and I am also heading a digital rights organization in Portugal (D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais), so I mostly attended sessions related to copyright, freedom of expression, net neutrality and other digital rights issues. I will share some thoughts and highlights on a few of the issues I had the opportunity to discuss and learn more about.
Censorship of online content was a big subject, one that spreads along different issues. Recent trends that come specially from Europe and from countries with oppressive regimes focus on the necessity of governments to be able to control what is on the Internet. Although this view wins over many people who have good intentions and are aiming to tackle other serious issues, we should not be naive and make an effort not to avoid difficult questions. The Internet is what it is today because it was open and inclusive, but nowadays we are at risk of not having the Internet anymore, but rather many “Internets”. Countries with oppressive regimes are using the Internet to control their own citizens in a scale never before seen in History, restricting Internet access, censoring information and communications, collecting bulk personal information, using heavy surveillance on political dissidents, minorities and other vulnerable groups. To those groups, Internet can be their worst nightmare, or their savior. In order to guarantee that it is the latter, we must fight for an open and human rights based Internet, which can only happen if citizens are able to communicate online as freely as they do in a face to face conversation.
Sadly, that is not the direction in which most countries with a strong tradition of defense of the human rights seem to be heading. Although on a different category, we are also witnessing increasing governmental initiatives to censor online content, whether the aim is to combat terrorism, fake news, hate speech, enforce copyright, etc. This kind of simple minded legislation is usually proposed with little to no concern for its impact on citizen’s rights, no sense of proportionality and no assessment of effectiveness. Legislators demand platforms to take down content within hours, threating them with huge fines if they don’t comply. They do not seem to care if the automatic content filters of those platforms end up deleting evidence of crimes against humanity or removing satirical and political speech, neither they seem concerned with the impacts of counter-terrorism laws on our rights (as Maryant Fernández Pérez from EDRi puts it, “nowadays we are all suspects by default”). David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, shared his concerns about these measures, and even included the current EU copyright reform as a troubling matter for freedom of expression, as the current proposal demands mandatory upload filters to scan all the content users upload to websites like Youtube and Facebook, and the censoring of links, just for the sake of copyright. I also could not help noticing how we heard many comments and warnings about the dangers of this kind of censorship legislation can be used by governments for political prosecution and to restrict political speech, coming from people from South-American countries. They know what they are talking about, they still remember it.
Fake news was also a popular subject. On this regard, I felt there were many doubts cast on the ability of algorithms to solve the problem of fake news, given their lack of accuracy, difficulties in adapting them to different local contexts and languages, and serious risks of censoring speech. It seems that education needs to be our main tool to handle this serious issue which has the potential to influence public opinions on a massive scale by the spread of false, inaccurate or incomplete information.
Net neutrality – one of the areas where we saw how large scale manipulation on the internet can influence politics – was also discussed. Despite the recent decision in the USA that puts neutrality at risk, it was reassuring to see how this decision was also a wake up call for the civil society on the importance of having an open and neutral Internet, where Internet access providers are not permitted to abuse their gatekeeper position to make profit. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet services providers must treat all Internet data equally, with no discrimination. If you are not familiar with the term, think how it would be like if your Internet service, instead offering you access to the global network, was sold as a TV service where different channels (websites) have different prices, and where you would have to pay more to access premium websites.
On a final note, the idea of having a Digital Geneva Convention to protect the use of the Internet is one of the most interesting ideas I have heard in a while.
I hope I was able to show you some of the Internet related issues discussed at IGF. These are matters that need attention and participation from the civil society. We should not take our Internet for granted, it is up to us to fight for a better Internet. This is too important to be left to governments and private sector. Have your say!