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Power Check: Protecting the Digital Commons

26 Jun 2012

Power Check: Protecting the Digital Commons
This think piece reflects on the evolution of information and communication technology (ICT) as a tool to monitor, report and critique corporate and state behaviour. It also examines the problematic connections between ICT companies and countries seeking to control their citizens, and the implications for a robust public sphere both online and offline. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that now one-third of the world’s 7 billion people are online and that 17 per cent are mobile web users. The Internet is of increasing importance in the lives of youth, with 45 per cent of global users under 25. How Internet governance develops nationally and internationally will impact profoundly the online freedom of assembly and speech of people everywhere.

Kelly O'Neill is an independent researcher and co-founder of Wired Woman Toronto, a non-profit society promoting women in information and communication technology. She holds a Master's degree in Environmental Studies and is a post-graduate candidate in Human Rights at the London School of Economics. She previously worked at UNRISD where her research contributed to the following projects: Business Responsibility for Sustainable Development, Information Technologies for Social Development and Gender, Poverty, and Well-Being.

      It used to seem beyond doubt the web would be ruled by a spirit of shared community, a source of individual empowerment against corporate and political might. …The future will not be like the past. The question is how to preserve the public commons that is the web’s greatest asset.
      Editorial, The Guardian, 20 April 2012

Digital Activism Then and Now
In May 1998, the World Trade Organization (WTO) held its Second Ministerial Conference in Geneva, an occasion that also marked 50 years since the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The event, however, would be remembered for an anti-globalization demonstration by ten thousand people from all over the world – the first of a series of such demonstrations. My exploration of the role new Internet-enabled communication played in the protest’s organization led to an UNRISD Discussion Paper, Internetworking for Social Change: Keeping the Spotlight on Corporate Responsibility. Here I reflect on the evolution of information and communication technology (ICT) as a tool to monitor, report and critique corporate and state behavior. Further, the viewpoint also examines the problematic connections between ICT companies and countries seeking to control their citizens, and the implications for a robust public sphere both online and offline.

At the WTO’s Third Ministerial Conference in 1999 in Seattle, digital activism came into its own as local and international protestors banded together with sympathetic computer programmers to set up the first Independent Media Centre. Since then, developments in ICT have not only led to a global explosion in access to the Internet, but also transformed the way people engage online: as producers as well as consumers of content – a development with important implications for digital advocacy. While in 2000 there were 250 million Internet users, the International Telecommunications Union estimates that now one third of the world’s 7 billion people are online and that 17 per cent are mobile web users. The Internet is of increasing importance in the lives of youth, with 45 per cent of global users under 25. Today developing nations are home to 62 per cent of Internet users. As Manuel Castells notes, “the real difference lies in broadband and connection quality and not in access which is spreading faster than any other technology in history.”

Since the late 1990s, the value of the Internet as a conduit for social interaction and social change has likewise grown markedly. Declaring 2011 the year of Social Media and Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated: “the message of this unexpected global awakening was carried in the first instance not by the satellites of major media conglomerates, or conferences, or other traditional means – although these all played a role – but by the dynamic and irrepressible surge of social media.” Certainly digital communications do not guarantee social change; however, there have been enough cases around the world to warrant close attention to the democratic potential of ICT use to alter the status quo.

As for corporations in the late1990s, many were often cast in a reactionary role as nimble NGOs quickly learned how to harness inexpensive ICT in anti-corporate campaigns. But how have companies matured in their own use of social media to tell their side of the story? The case of Nestlé and Greenpeace International (GI) illustrates how a civil society organization and its supporters can produce online content and control a debate from the outset.1 In an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, GI created a provocative video designed to spotlight the destruction of rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. When YouTube removed the mock KitKat commercial – after Nestlé claimed copyright infringement – GI used Twitter to publicize the censorship attempt. The Nestlé Facebook page was flooded with complaints, where they were met by the angry feedback of a corporate representative. The company’s negative response led to greater online attention and the campaign eventually became a story in the mainstream media. In an effort to stave growing criticism, just two months later the beleaguered corporation announced a partnership with the Forest Trust to remove from its supply chain all palm oil companies connected to deforestation.

A move away from the reactionary stance of corporations, however, may be coming as they increasingly insinuate themselves into the social web particularly vis-à-vis sustainability issues. For example, the new Social Media Sustainability Index examined 287 major European and North American firms and found that by the end of 2011, the number of businesses using social media this way had gone up dramatically from 60 to 250 businesses, with 100 of these using blogs, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube channels to discuss sustainability. 2 Whether the move to claim a greater online presence reflects a genuine desire of corporations to better engage on the issues or is simply another branch of reputation management remains to be seen.

With actions in hundreds of cities the world over, the anti-globalization Occupy movement likewise demonstrates the power of social media campaigns to cultivate a critical mass of attention on the web so that it becomes difficult for mainstream media, politicians and businesses to ignore. While it is unclear what the long-term impacts of the movement will be on the status quo, it clearly underscores both the amplification power of social media when coupled with social disillusion and the openness of the Internet as a carrier of compelling ideas from South to North. The original call to occupy Wall Street came via a blog post by Canadian magazine Adbusters. As editor Kalle Lasn notes, however, the initial inspiration came from witnessing the online and offline actions of anti-austerity protestors in Greece and the indignados of Spain as well as the youth activists of the Arab Spring.3

How Elites Strike Back

The punitive reaction of states to social media further underscores their potential effectiveness as tools for social change. Reporters Without Borders describes 2011 as “the deadliest year for netizens” as states employ severe content filtering, use digital propaganda, track online dissidents and use interrogation to extract passwords for Skype, Facebook and Vkontakte.4 Home to nearly a quarter of global Internet users, China employs firewalls, intrusive software, forces Internet service providers to censor their customers and pays people to infiltrate the web with propaganda. Further, Western social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked. The Net Delusion argues strenuously that to date Western analysts, beguiled by cyber-utopianism, have ignored the ominous rise of increasingly sophisticated technologies to control information and citizens across the globe.

Internet capture is not a problem endemic to autocratic governments alone: mounting evidence links technologies used to digitally censor information and monitor civil society to democratic states and Silicon Valley corporations.5 Howard, Agarwal and Hussain document incidents of digital censorship across 99 countries since the mid-1990s; their study shows that “while authoritarian regimes practice controlling full networks, sub-networks and nodes more than democracies, democracies are the most likely to target civil society actors by proxy through manipulating Internet service providers.” As states and corporations increasingly collaborate to corral information and monitor assembly in the digital domain, how are advocates for an open Internet responding?

Civil Society Responds
      We have to protect the Internet in every way we can, because it's the primary medium that we can express ourselves in without having to go through gatekeepers, either international or local ones.
      Esra’a Al Shafei, CrowdVoice.org founder

Just how compelled are governments – even in democracies – to ensure “net neutrality” or the treatment of all Internet traffic equally? Against a slew of proposed legislation to control the Internet, a nascent counter-movement within civil society is emerging. In the United States, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act set off history’s largest online protest on 18 January 2012 and led to a postponement of both bills. In May 2012, the multinational Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement succumbed to growing numbers of online and street-level protests, particularly in Eastern Europe. Critics claim that the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act would permit firms to bypass privacy laws to spy on citizens and pass information to the state in the name of national security. Additionally, the Electronic Freedom Foundation warns that the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement proposes even more restrictive measures than earlier attempts to control the Internet.

While states and organizations such as the ITU vie for influence, civil society groups are also demanding a say in Internet governance. In the lead-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December 2012, a global coalition of civil society organizations and academics submitted a letter to the ITU Secretary-General demanding participation and a more transparent process to decide how ICT will be managed and regulated. A few countries are starting to heed calls to respond to digital privacy issues. Following considerable online protest by civil society, in 2010 the Chilean government became the first country to bring in laws to prevent Internet Service Providers from restricting Internet use. In May 2012, the Netherlands became Europe’s first nation to pass net neutrality legislation to limit the circumstances under which ISPs are permitted to wiretap customers or decline their access.

The Future of the Digital Commons
      We’re at a critical point … in history, where the Internet is not some force of nature. How it evolves and how it can be used and who it empowers really depends on all of us taking responsibility for making sure it evolves in a direction that is compatible with democracy”
      Rebecca MacKinnon6

The gathering protests against Internet control have so far enjoyed a margin of success, spotlighting some problematic issues and delaying ratification of some legislation. But will a rousing civil society (and a handful of sympathetic states) provide enough counter-weight to the power and influence of elites? As technology develops, repressive states are already devising ways to avoid the so-called dictator’s digital dilemma whereby shutting off the Internet to stop dissent carries too great an economic and political risk. China, in cooperation with high-tech corporations, appears to be developing “predictive censorship” which bases access to the Internet on an individual’s perceived risk to the state.7 Reporters Without Borders and others claim that Iran is about to nationalize the Internet altogether, with the government and big companies accessing the Web while most citizens are relegated to a censored intranet.

Informed policy response is needed now to stave further erosion of an open digital commons. Indeed, as UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue notes, “the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.”

The development of a framework to maintain an open Internet, however, will not be easy. The question of Internet governance was difficult in the late 1990s and remains so now.8 The UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF)9 is an important enabler of a multistakeholder dialogue between governments, the private sector and civil society; however, it is non-binding and does not engage in policy making. The October 2011 proposal by India for a UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) is mired in controversy with skeptics viewing it, for instance, as an attempt to cede Internet control to the United Nations.

The United States government has recently committed up to $30,000,000 to promote “Internet freedom” around the world; critics such as Clay Shirky, however, caution against a perceived heavy-handedness in the government’s choice of which cyber-activists receive support. Another purported shortcoming of this approach is an overemphasis on broadcast media while considering public speech by individuals and the private use of digital media secondarily. Shirky argues that an “instrumental” approach may be less effective in the long-term than a broader approach to Internet policy. He contends that an “environmental” approach would reinforce public spheres through the support of net neutrality in all countries, freedom of expression for citizen journalists, and investment in technology development and general digital literacy in developing countries.

As for the role of ICT firms in global Internet surveillance, recent proposals to encourage greater transparency include the Know Your Customer programme, the Global Network Initiative, and the Silicon Valley Standard. For instance, the SVS recommends, inter alia, that companies apply a human rights framework to the development of standard operating procedures and best practices. The proposed standard also promotes multistakeholder dialogue between business and human rights advocates and urges companies to support Internet integrity where it enables and protects the safe participation of civil society.10 Adopted in May 2011, the OECD revisions of the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises explicitly recognize the importance of human rights due diligence and exhorts companies to promote a free and open Internet.

How Internet governance develops nationally and internationally will impact profoundly the online freedom of assembly and speech of people everywhere. With nearly half of the world’s Internet users under 25 and most of all future Internet penetration to take place in developing countries, digital activists have the potential to assume a crucial role in creating tomorrow’s civil society. As Mauritania-born rights advocate Nasser Wedaddy contends, techno-savvy youth are “the seeds of future civil society.”11 If comprehensive policies to prevent the co-optation of a vibrant, innovative digital commons by strictly commercial and state interests are not forthcoming, we may one day regard the past decade as the halcyon days of an open Internet.

1 "Anti-corporate activism through social media: How Greenpeace is leading the way." 28 February 2011. Professors Crane and Matten, http://craneandmatten.blogspot.ca.

2 Guest blog on http://craneandmatten.blogspot.ca by Matthew Yeomans, an expert on social media related to CSR and sustainability, 3 February 2012. Full report at http://www.socialmediainfluence.com/SMI-report.

3 "Occupy Wall Street 2.0: A Conversation with Kalle Lasn," Solutions Journal, Volume 3, Issue 2, Page 14-15, April 2012. www.solutionsjournal.com

4 “Beset by online surveillance and content filtering, netizens fight on”, http://en.rsf.org published 13 March, 2012. Update 29 March 2012.

5 For a closer look at the businesses behind the technologies, see Human Rights and Technology Sales: How Corporations Can Avoid Assisting Repressive Regimes by Cindy Cohn, Trevor Tinn and Jillian C. York, Electronic Freedom Foundation white paper, April 2012, www.eff.org. See also the work of Ron Diebert et al., Open Net Initiative.

6 R. MacKinnon (2012) "Internet Censorship Affects Everybody: Rebecca MacKinnon on the Global Struggle for Online Freedom," video interview with Amy Goodman, 17 January. For an in-depth exploration of the issues, see MacKinnon’s new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, New York: Basic Books. 2012.

7 Evgeny Morozov, "Role of the Internet in Supporting or Toppling Authoritative Regimes," Institute of International and European Affairs, posted on YouTube, November 2011.

8 When ICANN was created in 1998 in the U.S. to manage IP addresses and domain names, some countries were uncomfortable with perceived American control. See www.icannwatch.org and Professor Milton Mueller’s blog at www.internetgovernance.org.

9 The IGF came out of the 2005 UN World Summit on the Information Session in Tunis. The term "Internet governance" evolved to include both technical issues and Internet policy.

10 For more information on the 2011 Human Rights and Technology conference from which the SVS emerged, see www.accessnow.org and www.rightscon.org.

11Online activists in the Middle East: Seeds of the Future” by B.C. 22 May 2012, Newsbook blog.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.