Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister of France and a founder of Doctors Without Borders, has an interesting but somewhat unsettling op-ed in today’s New York Times. Entitled “The Battle for the Internet,” it’s a call to arms in
the battle of ideas . . . between the advocates of a universal and open Internet — based on freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for privacy — against those who want to transform the Internet into a multitude of closed-off spaces that serve the purposes of repressive regimes, propaganda and fanaticism.
It’s a subject dear to my heart, as you probably know; I, too, believe that preserving what the Center for Democracy and Technology aptly calls the “free, open, and innovative Internet” is of the deepest importance for the future — literally — of human society on the planet. I like where Kouchner’s coming from:
The Internet is above all the most fantastic means of breaking down the walls that close us off from one another. For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes. It is increasingly difficult to hide a public protest, an act of repression or a violation of human rights. In authoritarian and repressive countries, mobile telephones and the Internet have given citizens a critical means of expression, despite all the restrictions.
He’s right about that – at least, I agree wholeheartedly. (Libertarian blogger Adam Thierer called my book about the Net “an extended love letter to both cyberspace and Jefferson,” and though I’m not entirely sure he meant it as one, I took it as a compliment. Though we academics are supposed to take the posture of ironic detachment from pretty much everything we encounter, I happen to think, and I’m happy to say to whomever is listening, that the Net is an astonishing achievement with the potential, only partly but tantalizingly realized to date, to become a true milestone in the history of human communication and a possibly unstoppable force for the spread of liberty and freedom around the globe. I realize (see Evgeny Morozov’s rather peevish piece in Foreign Policy, denying that the Net has been (or can be) a force for good in the world) that it has not instantly transformed everything it touches into the Earthly Paradise – but that’s a pretty high standard to hold it to.
And I’m certainly with him when he writes:
However, the number of countries that censor the Internet and monitor Web users is increasing at an alarming rate. The Internet can be a formidable intelligence-gathering tool for spotting potential dissidents. Some regimes are already acquiring increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology. If all of those who are attached to human rights and democracy refused to compromise their principles and used the Internet to defend freedom of expression, this kind of repression would be much more difficult.
The Net is under siege, and will require some serious work to keep it free and open. But somehow, I can’t work up much enthusiasm for Kouchner’s call to action:
Multilateral institutions like the Council of Europe, and nongovernmental organizations like Reporters Without Borders, along with thousands of individuals around the world, have made a strong commitment to these issues. No fewer than 180 countries meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society have acknowledged that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies fully to the Internet, especially Article 19, which establishes freedom of expression and opinion. And yet, some 50 countries fail to live up to their commitments.
We should create an international instrument for monitoring such commitments and for calling governments to task when they fail to live up to them. We should provide support to cyber-dissidents — the same support as other victims of political repression. We should also discuss the wisdom of adopting a code of conduct regarding the export of technologies for censoring the Internet and tracking Web users.
These issues, along with others, like the protection of personal data, should be addressed within a framework that brings together government, civil society and international experts.
It sounds a bit, to my ears, too much like asking the UN to run the Net (which, as readers of my work know, we tried once before, with notable lack of success).
Kouchner also makes me nervous when he begins his list of what the “enemies of the Internet” are up to this way:
Extremist, racist and defamatory Web sites and blogs disseminate odious opinions in real time. They have made the Internet a weapon of war and hate. . . . Violent movements spread propaganda and false information.
There are many threats out there to the free and open Internet, but I don’t regard “extremist, racist, and defamatory Web sites,” or “blogs disseminating odious opinions,” as among them. Although Kouchner has ringing words for freedom of expression — “Freedom of expression, said Voltaire, ‘is the foundation of all other freedoms.’ Without it, there are no ‘free nations.'” — somehow I think that his agenda is to the contrary. Freedom of expression without “extremist, racist, and defamatory web sites” and “odious opinions” is not freedom of expression — not in my book, anyway. Something tells me that when the “World Summit on the Information Society” gets its hands on the Net, true freedom of expression on the Net will not be high on their list of preferred outcomes.
So, on the one hand, I’m glad Kouchner has sounded the alarm; he ends his piece by declaring that “the defense of fundamental freedoms and human rights must be the priority for governance of the Internet. It is everyone’s business” and I think he’s right — importantly right — about that. But I think we need — rather desperately — alternate governance models to deal with this problem, alternate models that move in a direction away from the UN and towards something that better reflects the wishes and desires of the world’s people, not the world’s governments. It’s not going to be easy, though I’m working on it . . .