From Freedom to Inclusion: Narrowing the discourse on internet rights

I recently read an interesting discussion on the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC) mailing list, discussing the ways in which common terms, phrases, and figures of speech can have extremely diverse meanings, based not only on context, but on the user’s perspective and understanding (in this case, techies versus non-techies). These multiple meanings can cause profound misunderstandings that not only derail constructive discourse, but in some cases, hide the true intentions of those who employ these [loaded] terms.

In my opinion, ‘Internet Freedom’, with its simultaneous meanings and diverse usage, falls easily into this category, representing an unclear grouping of principles, policies and practices. Indeed, even Wikipedia re-directs a search for ‘internet freedom’ in its English-language database to an entry on ‘internet censorship, though many would agree that internet freedom goes well beyond this narrow definition.

In some ways the Declaration on Internet Freedom, developed last year, attempts to clarify what internet freedom ‘looks like’ –a free and open internet, based on principles of universal access, freedom from censorship, openness, innovation, and privacy. But those words also have multiple interpretations and priorities that can be used to advance particular interests over and above the ‘global public interest’ (whatever that might be), with regards to internet governance.

One of the dangers in using a term like ‘Internet Freedom’ can be seen in the recent ‘Digital Cold War’ language being employed by some to describe the conflict between actors supporting a ‘Hands Off the Internet’ approach (such as the United States, and its private tech sector), and those seeking a stronger regulatory role for States in internet governance (with China and Russia seen as leading this position). While these two ‘camps’ are portrayed as supporting vastly different visions of internet governance, actors on both sides share important concerns about digital inclusion and access to the economic benefits of internet activity.

While it may never be possible for these groups to come to anything resembling an acceptable agreement on issues of censorship and privacy, or even openness, there is significant space for discussion and perhaps even agreement on strategies to promote access and innovation.

Even on complex issues, such as ‘combating hate speech online’, there is space for understanding and compromise. In May 2012, at the 13th session of the Universal Periodic Review, Iran made a recommendation to Finland to “Take effective measures to eliminate widespread sexual misuse and harassment against women and girls, including on the Internet and via mobile phones”, while China recommended that Poland “Make more efforts in law making and law enforcement to combat incitement to racial and religious discrimination in the internet”. Online harassment and hate speech are concerns for many actors signed up to the Declaration on Internet Freedom, including APC. While the methods undertaken by some States to address these new online dangers clearly infringe on basic human rights, alternative strategies are not only possible, but preferable. As the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance recently stated:

“Promoting freedom of speech and diversity of voices using the Internet remains an effective approach to combating racism. States should therefore adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all.”

How we collectively talk about internet governance contributes a great deal to the policies and practices that make up the underlying infrastructure of the internet. Perhaps instead of focusing discussion on the lofty and vague goal of ‘Internet Freedom’, dismissing, and at times vilifying, actors with divergent perspectives, the internet community could look instead at overlapping priorities, working towards enhanced cooperation to promote not just access, but inclusion.

Image from Free Press Pics under Creative Commons license.