The Cyberdialogue organised by the impressive Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto brought together a stimulating mixture of academics, technology experts, diplomats, politicians, private sector representatives, journalists, military & security professionals and civil society. It was refreshing and sometimes quite challenging to be in a discussion with genuinely diverse perspectives.
Some of the discussions on Internet governance required good listening skills as references to obscure acronyms and Westphalian sovereignty were bandied about. The majority of participants were dismissive of the efforts of authoritarian governments to assert national sovereignty on the Internet. As one participant put it, what is not to like in an issue that unites Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia? But there was also reflection that Western governments had ended up in a minority at the wickedly named World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, even if this may have limited immediate consequences. There were many references to the necessity of a multi-stakeholder approach in order to defend freedom on the Internet, but few proposals on how to make that more appealing to the global south, where it can look like the unaccountable self-interest of a rich boys club.
I also found it interesting that in a two hour discussion on governance all references to the private sector were exclusively positive and nobody questioned the need for accountability in respect of powerful corporations such as Microsoft or Google. Although Microsoft and AT&T did face some questioning later in terms of their failure to follow Google and Twitter in reporting on the requests they receive from Governments for access to information. Microsoft were also challenged on their silence about the US Government’s abuse of Windows Update to propagate the Stuxnet worm. And they squirmed but remained silent…
In terms of the targeting of human rights defenders there were contributions focusing on Tibet, Iran and China. I also raised the situation in Bahrain where human rights defenders Ali Abdulemam and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja have been tortured by a regime that receives support and help from Western Governments and companies.There was a good discussion on the need to prevent Western companies and agencies supporting repression through the provision of tools and advice. I was again impressed by the work of Marietje Schaake MEP and there was an excellent contribution from Eric King of Privacy International on the digital arms trade.
Unsurprisingly there was no consensus on who should police the Internet. There were many references to the need for independent judicial oversight and Frank La Rue the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression reminded us that human rights law also applies in cyberspace and highlighted last year’s resolution from the Human Rights Council. Probably the best conclusion was the comment that we should not trust anyone to police the internet for us and that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance from the side of all of us.