A spicy, serious and deeply relevant debate

 

ANALYSIS: Focusing on the theme of internet freedom proved to be a wise and inspiring choice

FAR FROM being a placid talking shop, the OSCE-sponsored Dublin Conference on Internet Freedom had plenty of beef – and beefs – on its first day.

After Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore opened the event by invoking James Joyce as presiding muse for the event – slightly incongruous given the Joyce estate’s long battle for control and extension of copyright – the conference dove into the meaty issue of how to ensure the internet remains an open, global forum for freedom of opinion and expression.

The morning panel was the more well-tempered, with many of its speakers among the diplomatic, government and institutional corps, representing the UN, US and European Union. But calm opening statements moved to feistier contributions throughout the morning.

For example, UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue was adamant that unregulated openness and transparency, and more online discussion and scrutiny, could only be supportive of democracy and freedom, whether in relation to Wikileaks or an investigation of the financial sector.

US official Thomas Melia said internet freedom was too important to be legislated for by governments. And numerous speakers argued that the internet should not be treated and legislated for in a special way. Issues that arise online, and human rights protections, mostly fit within existing treaties and frameworks, they said.

But divisions began to appear as questions came in from the floor and from the internet. In particular, defining “internet freedom” proved tricky. The US did not feel that internet freedom was inconsistent with supporting the controversial multinational Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, for example.

The afternoon session was particularly robust, featuring a panel that held sometimes widely divergent views on copyright and content protection. Well-known internet blogger and author Cory Doctorow argued that 10 years of “skirmishes” had produced no resolution to the copyright debate, and attempts to regulate only did “terrible damage to the internet”.

The session also grappled with the topic of state digital control and interventions as Azerbaijani blogger and civil rights activist Emin Milli, imprisoned by his government until human rights campaigns helped free him, pointedly thanked his government for not having killed him.

The session moderator had to cope with trying to curtail several long outbursts from the floor by Azerbaijani government figures. Organisers had to resort to shutting off one speaker’s microphone.

All of which is testimony to the spiciness, seriousness and relevance of the panel content. These are big issues that are complex, divisive and difficult, and evoke passion. No single conference is going to tease out the detail or bring resolution.

But the Irish Government, currently chairing the OSCE, chose a great topic for this forum, and has organised a meaningful event. The lengthy panel sessions, with feedback from the audience in the hall and online, helped convert the dry and technical into living issues critical to the future of the internet.

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