Free Speech Debate team blog: Enemies of the Internet
Free speech is a fundamental human right; everyone, everywhere has an inalienable right to give their opinions. Today the internet is the frontier where free speech and state attempts to control it collide. As the internet is this frontier there are today questions of whether internet access may be a human right and whether states that are considered free should attempt to defend the principle of internet freedom against illegitimate encroachments in non-democratic countries.
For a time the internet was the only uncensored outlet for criticism of governments that have the traditional media under their thumb however this rapidly changed as authoritarian governments recognised that to stay in power they need to control the internet. Many non-democratic regimes, as well as a few democratic ones, engage in censorship particularly over internal news relating to that country. China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is the most notorious censorship system and employs forty thousand internet police to monitor the country’s millions of web users. However many more countries have some form of censorship in operation, much of this involving blocking content that is perceived as being against the sitting government.
Anti-government protests in Burma in 2007 and in Iran during its 2009 “green revolution” showed the importance of the internet to protest movements with social media being used to get information out to the rest of the world as well as to organise protests. Even major news outlets and foreign diplomats gained much of their information on the protests from social networks. Attempts by these two governments to cut the flow of information and shut the internet down during these protests also stimulated efforts to develop tools to help protestors bypass government’s censorship efforts. For example there was widespread coverage of a program called Haystack that was created to provide a secure route to anonomise users identities and so provide a safe way to communicate with the world. While Haystack unfortunately did not work it did provide impetus to the idea that the response from the international community to human rights violations could in part be technological. Countries such as the United States and United Kingdom are increasingly using their aid budgets to help freedom of expression on the internet. In April 2012 William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, promised an additional £1.5 million specifically for this purpose.
“The Second Free Speech Debate principle is “We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.” Leads to the question of how we defend the internet. One of the options to defend freedom on the internet is creating software to help evade censorship so keeping the internet open to all. Human rights are a bread and butter issue for foreign aid and the internet is now one of the key battle grounds for freedom of speech. Activists are unlikely to be able to match their states on their own; foreign aid can help redress the balance.” - Alex Helling
Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights defines freedom of speech as “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It is something innate in humans to have opinions and to want to express them to others and within a few limits governments have a duty to allow this freedom of expression. Where governments are not allowing this freedom of information this affects not only those whose opinions are being suppressed but those who cannot hear their opinions. The right to the freedom to receive and seek this information is just as important as the right to voice these opinions. Moreover as stated in Article 19 this is “regardless of frontiers”; those outside a country have just as much right to hear these opinions as those inside.
Government aid programs from democracies in Western Europe and America are already concerned with promoting human rights including freedom of speech. Australia’s aid program for example has a Human Rights Fund of $6.5 million per year that provides grants to among other things “educate and/or train human rights victims, workers or defenders”. Enabling victims of human rights abuse to get around their government’s censorship is the obvious next step.
The concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 provided that when governments were unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens then that responsibility devolves to the international community and may ultimately lead to military action for particularly gross violations. This responsibility to react should be “with appropriate measures” and for the breach of the human right of freedom of expression providing a method to enable those whose freedom of expression/speech is being violated to exercise this right is the most appropriate and proportional response.
 Evans, Garath and Mohamed Sahnoun Chair’s, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, International Development Research Center, December 2001, p.XI.
That there is a right to freedom of speech does not mean that we have an obligation to make sure that everyone around the world has freedom of speech. Freedom of speech and expression is indeed a human right in the universal declaration of human rights however this is something that it is obligated for governments to uphold for their own people rather than for other countries to enforce. If governments are infringing on the freedoms of their people the correct way to counter this is through international diplomacy rather than seeking to undermine that state.
The responsibility to protect, itself controversial, was only ever meant to apply to the very worst human rights violations - such as the genocide in Rwanda. If there are massacres of civilians and all other options have failed then there may be a need to intervene to prevent more killing. However violations of freedom of speech are not something that is time dependent. Diplomacy may often take a long time but can eventually work, as is being shown in Burma's opening up
If democracies are to provide money to help dissidents then this option of funding research into and distributing software to defeat censors is the easiest way in which to help these dissidents. Those who are trying to exercise their freedom of speech do not want help in the form of military intervention or diplomatic representations rather they want to have the space and capacity to exercise those freedoms. The internet means that for the first time it is possible for external actors to provide that platform for freedom of speech without having to take those who wish to exercise these freedoms outside of the country that is violating those freedoms.
The internet is very important in the economies of many authoritarian regimes. In China for example there are 145 million online shoppers and the e-commerce market is worth almost $100 billion and could be worth over $300 billion by 2015. As a result authoritarian regimes can’t easily just turn off the internet and ignore it so long as they want their economy to operate. As a result except in extreme cases such as North Korea or for particularly prominent dissidents who are locked up physical access to the internet is unlikely to be denied.
So long as there is physical access to the internet it will be possible to help by providing ways to avoid firewalls so that they can access information their state has banned and express opinions to both the outside world and their compatriots. It is equally important to provide ways for these people to avoid being tracked by the authorities so as to prevent retaliation against them for evading censorship. While Haystack was a failure there have been other projects that are receiving state department funding that may be more successful such as ‘InTheClear’ which provides a “panic button” app for smart phones allowing contents to be quickly erased and prewritten texts sent so having the dual effect of making it more difficult for those making the arrest to find out what the user was doing and raising the alarm that this person has been arrested. This technology helps meet a clear need; Egyptian democracy activists when asked what kind of technology they needed most said they wanted safer cellphones.
Providing such mechanisms does not help activists and can even harm them. These activists will have few guarantees that the technology will work. Previous technologies meant to give anonymity have often not worked or else the governments will come up with ways to break them. Haystack is a good example of a technology meant to help dissidents that could have ended up causing more harm than the good it did.
Most government aid budgets are small and have numerous other important calls on their resources such as development aid. Between 2008 and 2011 the United States Congress funded the effort against internet censorship with $76 million. While this may sound like a lot compared to the $168 million of aid to Liberia and $152 million to UNICEF in 2011 it is not a large commitment. Yet due to the nature of the internet small investments can have immense benefits. Money spent on food aid will buy enough food to feed a limited amount of people yet if a technology is developed that allows internet users to get around censors and not be tracked then hundreds of millions would benefit. It would at the same time have the incalculable benefit of making it more difficult for authorities to track and crack down on those who are breaking the authorities’ censorship.
Funding such technologies is unlikely to result in large benefits or will result in escalating costs. China has billions invested in its online censorship activities. Any attempt to fund ways to counter this censorship would likely become involved in an online arms race if it wanted to do more than temporary good. This could end up being a costly on-going operation with very few benefits. The money would be better spent helping the truly needy from hunger than allowing the global middle classes to exercise their freedom of speech.
Sovereignty is the exercise of the fullest possible rights over a piece of territory; the state is ‘supreme authority within a territory’. The sovereignty of nations has been recognised by all nations in article 2 of the UN charter. Funding attempts by citizens of a nation to avoid its own government’s censorship efforts is clearly infringing upon matters that are within the domestic jurisdiction of individual states and is as such a violation of sovereignty. It is also clear that when it comes to enforcement of human rights there is a general rule should be followed that states should have the chance to solve their own internal problems domestically before there is international interference.
Censorship by governments can be there for the good of society; for example South Korea censors information about North Korea and forces internet users to use id cards and real names when posting on forums and blogs making them easy to trace. This does not however mean that democracies should be helping South Koreans to bypass this system, South Korea as a nation has decided to place some restrictions on the use of the internet and that should be respected by other nations.
It is simply unfair and unequal to apply one set of standards to one set of nations and different standards to another. If democracies have the right to decide how their internet should operate so should non democracies. The fundamental principle of non-interference should apply to all states.
 Shaw, Malcolm N., International Law 4th ed., Cambridge University press, 1997, p.333
 Shaw, Malcolm N., International Law 4th ed., Cambridge University press, 1997, p.202
Far from being a violation of sovereignty it should be considered that the internet is a global commons that needs to be defended against the encroachment of sovereignty. As Hillary Clinton has argued “The internet has become the public space of the 21st century – the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there, all 2 billion of us and counting.” This means that national sovereignty cannot be considered to apply to the internet. If one part of the internet becomes fenced off then it affects the rest of the internet as well.
Access to the internet is not the most pressing concern that foreign aid should be used to solve. Instead aid should help the 1.4billion who live on less than a dollar a day, the 216 million people infected with malaria every year, or the 42 million people who have been uprooted by conflict and natural disaster. Internet access while it has expanded immensely is still something that only the relatively rich have access to, not the kind of people that aid money should be spent on.
Finally if money is to be spent on the internet it should not be on the issue of evading censorship but focusing on the potential economic benefits of increasing internet penetration to the poorest.
Money will be spent on development anyway. However trade is often the best way to encourage growth and reductions in poverty. These technologies by making communication easier will make doing business in that country easier. Breaking through communication barriers on the internet could have much more impact than 'development' aid.
Proposition itself concedes that authoritarian states in the vast majority of cases are unlikely to cut off access to the internet for their population entirely. For many people the internet is not about free speech but about economic benefits. Most don’t want to protest but rather carry on inane social discussions, play computer games and listen to music. Things that even authoritarian governments are happy to occur. This money is therefore not aimed at addressing the concerns of the vast majority of netizens.
Those few who are concerned are already able to find ways around censorship for example proxies can be used to access external sites. China’s censorship system may be vast but it is only 40,000 attempting to watch hundreds of millions. Even China’s censors sometimes work at cross purposes as for example where weibo censored the official Xinhua news bulletin that Bo Xilai, former party chief in Chongqing, had been stripped of his party posts. During this same event for the first time the weight of discussion has shown that the censors can fail to keep up and where the mass of the public really is interested in discussing something they can.
While most of the population may not be enraged enough by censorship to attempt to get around it this does not mean they would not benefit from having the capability to do so. Governments often intrude into social discussion, music and even games by banning them and taking down discussions. These people would be much freer if they had complete freedom of choice rather than a government controlled set of boundaries on the internet.
The relationships which democratic countries have with non-democratic countries are much too important to jeopradise with such interference. Democracies and non-democracies need to be able to live peacefully with each other and engage in economic contact. Having democracies supporting segments in a non-democracy’s population that is seen to be undermining the state not only sours relations but provides a direct point of contention that could potentially lead to conflict.
Democracies already show that they are aware of the conflict they create through their promotion of human rights by toning down their rhetoric in relation to the most powerful non-democratic countries. The British Council has for example invited Liu Binjie, China’s censor in chief, to lead a delegation to the London Book Fair which is celebrating Chinese Literature. It is double standards to be lauding autocrats in public and yet seeking to undermine their countries through helping dissidents.
This implies that without efforts by democracies to ‘undermine’ non democratic regimes the internet would be nice and peaceful and everyone could get on with what they like doing on the internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is already a significant amount of conflict on the internet both in the form of insulting each other on forums and criminal activity. There have been numerous attempts, particularly originating from authoritarian countries, to attack the internet presence of other countries firms or governments or to hack and steal state secrets. This kind of behaviour is much more likely to cause conflict than any funding of research towards bypassing censors.
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