Nations Address Internet Freedom as Users, and Restrictions, Grow

BY Larisa Epatko  December 9, 2011 at 2:27 PM EDT


Syrian blogger Amjad Baiazy speaks during the Freedom Online conference in The Hague on Friday. Photo by Jerry Lampen/SFP/Getty Images.

Twenty-two countries gathered in The Hague this week to pledge their support for Internet freedoms around the world, but governments, companies and bloggers alike pointed to a host of problems facing Internet users and providers.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a key speech at the Internet freedom conference Thursday. She urged private companies to remain alert as to how their products could be used to repress a country’s citizens.

“In recent months, we’ve seen cases where companies, products, and services were used as tools of oppression,” said Clinton. “When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran or, in past times, (Libya’s Moammar) Gadhafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights.”

She said sanctions and export blocks can help, but the companies themselves need to be vigilant about how the technology could be used to restrict citizens’ Internet usage.

“More than 2 billion people are now connected to the Internet, but in the next 20 years, that number will more than double,” the secretary said. “The more people that are online and contributing ideas, the more valuable the entire network becomes to all the other users.”

(Read her full statement.)

Iran ranked No. 1 in the world for jailing journalists and bloggers, who were either accused of being spies or in some cases held without charge. Of 179 reporters, editors and photographers jailed worldwide in 2011, 42 of those journalists were in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ latest report. The government both restricts web user access and surveils its users.

Kelly Niknejad, editor of the Tehran Bureau, a joint project with Frontline, said the threat of being charged with spying hangs over the heads of journalists in Iran.

“There are fewer people who want to file stories because of the potential risks involved. I think most of it is psychological more than anything else,” she said.

And in the cases of activists using the Internet, even with pseudonyms, the government can track their actions and then mete out punishment. Niknejad said an activist from Tehran told her the easiest solution seems to be providing technology to counter government Internet detection, but the regime can side-step that technology by hiring overseas tech firms to do its surveillance.

Rather than a technological solution, the unnamed activist said, it would be better to pass legislation that punishes governments and companies that help the Iranian government in hunting down its dissidents.

“Laws must be introduced that would allow those arrested or tortured to bring lawsuits against such governments/firms that assist the regime,” the activist told her. “Even one successful lawsuit could badly embarrass and cause losses for a potential offender.”

Mehdi Yahyanejad, founder of the U.S.-based Balatarin.com, a Persian-language website where registrants can post links to information that interests them, said sanctions themselves can pose problems when companies withhold regular services, such as providing updates to anti-virus software, for fear of violating the sanctions in places like Iran.

“So sanctions that are meant to target the Iranian government have targeted the ordinary people,” he said.

Internet providers that operate all over the world, including countries that restrict their populations’ access, are struggling with the challenges, too. Johanna Shelton, senior policy counsel for Google Inc., said at a Newseum symposium on Thursday that her company is trying to push the Internet’s economic value and hopes countries realize that openness makes them more attractive to foreign investors.

Some organizations are trying to help companies navigate difficult questions such as whether they should deal with governments known for violating Internet freedoms, whether they should put warnings on their services, and what to do when they’re asked to hand over information about their clients.

The United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have issued guidelines to advise companies on how to meet responsibilities and carry out due diligence, said Clinton. And the new Global Network Initiative is a forum where companies can work through challenges with other industry partners, and academics, investors and activists, she said.

“There are predators, terrorists, traffickers on the Internet, malign actors plotting cyber attacks, and they all need to be stopped,” said Clinton. But countries can do that by working together without compromising their principles, she said.

Archive Video: Watch Clinton’s February speech, where she took repressive governments to task for curbing their citizens’ Internet use while defending the Obama administration’s stance on WikiLeaks.

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