Freedom's frontier


GIVEN ITS central importance to the way we run our societies, conduct our trade, and exchange ideas, the internet is, not surprisingly, an increasingly contested space. Political and international conflicts are waged daily online between states and individuals, between law enforcement agencies and criminals, and between powerful commercial interests. The internet’s transnational nature poses a particular challenge for national governments which, for whatever reasons, wish to impose regulatory restraints on online activity.

This week Dublin played host to the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference on internet freedom, a complex, contentious and often confusing subject which nevertheless demands the closest attention due to the centrality of the internet to the way we now run our societies. It has become a commonplace in recent years to remark on how digital technology, and the information explosion it has unleashed across the world, has overturned many traditional notions of the power of established elites.

On the other hand, in practice, many governments have successfully used new technology to track, stifle or crush online dissent. Often they have been aided and abetted by technology companies. Filtering and blocking tools which may be used legitimately by some states for crime prevention or child protection may be used by others for more sinister purposes.

With such a vast amount of data streaming across the global internet, it is hardly surprising that many governments are exploring how to regulate the online space. In doing so, they should take note of the OSCE’s Permanent Council Decision No. 633, which commits participating states to “take action to ensure that the internet remains an open and public forum for freedom of opinion and expression.”

However, as was pointed out this week, in addition to the freedom of expression, internet freedom also includes the right not to have your privacy infringed by commercial interests, and the freedom not to have your intellectual property rights exploited without your consent.

While companies such as Google are quick to put themselves on the side of the libertarian angels in these debates, it must be recognised that they are also protecting their own commercial interests when they argue against regulation, and that the huge amounts of personal data they currently retain on their own users presents a tempting target for some governments.

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