One of the outstanding features of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is the comprehensive, multidimensional notion of security, an approach that takes into account respect for human rights. In any meaningful debate on security issues, freedom of expression and free media play increasingly important roles, especially in the digital age.
But let’s face the truth: the Internet is in many ways still new to us. We are still wandering in the dark about how human rights should be protected online. A great deal of naivety accompanied the development of the Internet. That naivety is now gone.
Just a week ago, Turkey’s telecommunications regulator, citing court orders, effectively banned the use of Twitter by redirecting customers to a site referencing the court decision. The reason: Twitter had failed to remove “one or two” tweets. Users in Turkey got around the ban easily enough, essentially making the government look powerless in trying to block the microblog. At the time, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that he “wouldn’t leave the nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook.”
Although an Ankara court overturned the ban on Wednesday, it could take weeks before Twitter is officially back online.
On Thursday, the regulator was at it again, this time blocking YouTube – without so much as a court order. The apparent offense: The file-sharing site hosted an intercepted phone conversation between government authorities strategizing about possible military action against Syria.
All this avoids the simple issue: What are these social media platforms but the voices and views of people – amplified and accelerated by new technologies? Is the speed of transmission a threat? Is the distance the voice can travel a problem?
The major public outcry that followed Twitter ban in Turkey can only be interpreted as a loud no.
A loud no to attempts that call into question journalistic freedom; a loud no to attempts to gag the media; a loud no to attempts to justify such actions as necessary security measures.
George Orwell once wrote that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The public debate that followed the revelations of mass Internet and phone surveillance by U.S. intelligence services slightly altered this definition.
If liberty means anything at all in today’s world, it means the right to tell people what other people know but do not want them to hear.
Yet the Turkish authorities are not the only officials that have failed to understand what the public is loudly opposing.
News headlines have drawn attention to and spurred discussion about stories of websites of bloggers and opposition media being blocked in the Russian Federation. Many websites remain closed in countries with spotty media-freedom records such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
In the U.K., David Cameron proposed to impose a default Internet filtering for adult and sensitive subjects. He has also mused publicly about banning websites during times of social upheaval, saying websites such as Twitter and Facebook “can be used for ill.”
Across the OSCE region, which stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok, governments are increasingly taking legal and administrative action to reign in free expression on the Internet, often on national security grounds. It is my view that national security is, in many cases, just a canard to allow unpopular governments to seize control of the Internet – and block pesky social media sites.
Whether the Internet is really free is an open issue. That’s what we are discussing at the 4th Cyber Dialogue Conference, hosted by the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. A mix of global leaders from government, civil society, academia and private enterprise are participating in a series of public plenary conversations and working groups around cyberspace security and governance, looking at the big picture of where the Internet is headed, how free it will be and who will be regulating it in the future. The provocative title of this year’s conference is ‘After Snowden, Wither Internet Freedom?’
Big picture issues aside, it would be wise to stay vigilant at the task of keeping the Internet free in every country.
Dunja Mijatovic is the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.