Internet under fire from states seeking to control information

Events in Ukraine dominate discussions as delegates gather for fourth annual Freedom Online conference

Ukrainian Interior Ministry members, blocked by pro-Russian activists, gather outside the regional government headquarters in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, this week. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Ukrainian Interior Ministry members, blocked by pro-Russian activists, gather outside the regional government headquarters in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, this week. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

 

When the Freedom Online Coalition, a 23-government organisation that promotes an open and secure internet, selected Tallinn as the site for its fourth annual Freedom Online conference, the choice would prove timely and relevant.

As delegates gathered this week for the event in the former Soviet state, tensions had escalated yet again in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had declared the internet to be a CIA plot and proposed the establishment of a separate Russian national internet. He also apparently had taken over Russia’s largest social network, VK.

Estonia, which shares a border with Russia and has a substantial Russian-speaking minority amongst its 1.4 million citizens, knows what it is like to live with an unpredictable bear looking over its shoulder. It understands the uses and abuses of covert surveillance, and propaganda wars.

And, it gets the internet – both its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, the young state remade itself into one of the world’s most cutting-edge online societies, where nearly everyone files taxes and votes online, pays for goods and services electronically, and avails of widespread free wifi in cities and towns.

On the negative side, it endured a major hacking attack – waves of attacks stretching over many weeks – when in 2007, a Soviet war monument was moved from the city centre to the outskirts of Tallinn.

Unsurprisingly, the current situation in Ukraine and Russia has dominated the conference, which offers the chance for more than 400 senior government figures, civil society groups and businesses to gather and debate.


Platform shutdowns
The tone over the two days was immediately set in the opening session by Estonia’s foreign minister and its president, who both referenced Estonia’s Russian connections.

“Having been forced to live under foreign rule for centuries, we are well aware of the value of freedom,” said Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet, opening the conference. The actions of Russia “are serious violations of international law”.

Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who can write computer code himself and is regularly involved with international discussions on internet governance and development, noted in his opening address that actions, such as internet site or platform shutdowns by governments, supposedly to protect citizens, “are more often done for the sake of the security of authoritarian and undemocratic governments”.

Giorgi Margvelashvili, president of Georgia, added in a keynote, “our security, our protection of identity was lost when we were in war with the Russian Federation”. This was particularly the case when Georgia found it was deeply vulnerable to a Russian hacking attack similar to that experienced by Estonia, he said.

The FOC itself was established in 2011 in part to form a united international front opposing more heavy-handed management of the internet by states such as Russia and China, where social networks have been suspended, human rights activists persecuted for online activism, and there have been rumblings about establishing closed, domestic, government-controlled internets.

That potential fragmentation of the global net worries many, although one of the original architects of the internet, Vint Cerf, now a Google vice president and its “chief internet evangelist”, noted at the conference that “if the Chinese and the Russians want to shoot themselves in the foot by building this”, they’d likely find their ability to innovate and do business would suffer.

A similar fate would befall the global net if plans by countries such as Brazil to lay undersea broadband cables directly to countries like Portugal, to avoid having data travel through the US or UK come to pass, according to many at the event. Indications that Brazil and other countries, such as Germany, wish to hold all citizen data locally, in domestically-run data centres, also alarms many.

“Some of these proposals could generate major shifts in how the internet develops and how companies innovate and develop services,” said Nicolas Seidler, a policy adviser at the Internet Society (ISOC) in Switzerland, who moderated another session.

But many of the FOC’s member states were, rather uncomfortably, themselves under scrutiny at the event. In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread western-state covert surveillance, often on a mass scale and on domestic populations, how could members point fingers at other regimes?

That view was summed up by one conference panelist, Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project in India, who said that a Moroccan colleague had told her earlier that such surveillance in the west “legitimises what happens in their country as well. There is a hypocrisy here that undermines the values the FOC says it stands for”.

“Knowing that there are secret courts undermines trust in governments at very fundamental levels. As long as there hasn’t been a very strong signal from governments that they know this is wrong,” how could western governments ever regain trust, she asked, eliciting scattered applause.

She also noted that “the biggest pressure for data localisation is in western countries, in response to NSA surveillance.”

US government representatives at the event, including a live video address by US secretary of state John Kerry, directly acknowledged such concerns, voicing an intention, at least, to increase oversight and transparency of government agencies such as the NSA, and mend international perceptions.

On the other hand, Rob Fenn, a UK government representative, insisted at a press conference that the UK already was fully engaged in an open and public discussion on surveillance by its own secretive GCHQ.

“We feel democratic oversight of UK intelligence agencies is as good as, or better than, that in any place in the world,” he told The Irish Times, a view rejected by Nick Pickles of UK-based Big Brother Watch, who noted in a panel on surveillance that, by contrast to the US, there had been almost no public discussion of the Snowden revelations in the UK.

The focus on Russia didn’t sit well with everyone, especially civil society attendees who often work with, or were themselves, human rights activists.


Agreed declarations
An Azerbaijani woman in the audience at an evening event stood to point out, “So much attention at this conference from people here, and the media, is on Russia, and very little on Turkey” – which has a democratically elected government that shut down Twitter in the country for a period recently, and continues to block YouTube. Both are resources for anti-government activism.

Turkish novelist Elif Safak agreed, telling the audience, “Turkey is a place were western democracy can mingle with Islamic culture. It’s very important that this [move toward open democracy] doesn’t fail”.

The FOC launched a set of agreed declarations on internet freedom at the conference, but there was no clear indication of what would be done with them by member governments.

Award-winning human rights activist Shahzad Ahmad, who heads Pakistani internet freedom group Bytes for All, said that while the discussion at the conference was very important, he was disappointed that speakers generally avoided addressing the surveillance problems raised by Snowden, even though they were generally referenced in the FOC declarations.

“My disappointment here is, this is the good guys club, the champions of human rights. If key issues like their mass surveillance get swept under the carpets, then our confidence in them is shaken. We need actions and clear commitments – those would help our work in our own environment.

“That said, I support this process, which brings more accountability and transparency. But more action-focused outcomes are needed.”

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