Eternal vigilance the price of liberty online

Today’s article is written by Dunja Mijatovic, who is the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the 57-country Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. She was one of the panellists at the 2013 Stockholm Internet Forum.

The Internet plays a singularly important role in our world today, whether we are doing business, communicating with friends, reading the news or shopping. As a means for accessing and disseminating information, the Internet’s reach is unprecedented.

But while the technologies are new the principle remains the same: freedom of expression must have the same protection online as offline, as the UN Human Rights Council declared in its landmark resolution last July. How we can ensure this is one of the key challenges facing all of us – lawmakers, activists, journalists, ordinary citizens – today.

There are efforts by governments to address legitimate concerns such as protecting children and others from harmful content and to safeguard intellectual property, but which nevertheless threaten to have a detrimental effect on free expression. Notable examples include the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the United States, which were effectively shut down after seven million Internet users signed a petition and Internet companies including Wikipedia held a “blackout” protesting the acts. That action was followed in Europe by widespread protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

That does not mean that there are not more blatant attempts censor critical voices online as well. Online news sites have become some of the most vital and vibrant sources of independent journalism and as such have come under increasing threat. I have expressed my concern on several occasions about the harassment and even imprisonment of bloggers and journalists, as well as about attempts to introduce excessive national legislation that would enable authorities to censor journalists and clamp down on press freedom.

Even this brief précis makes clear that the threats to Internet freedom come from all sides. They could take the form of direct attempts to silence independent voices and assert government control, or they could simply be collateral damage of badly thought-out regulation.

What we need is to balance enforcement with rights, weighing in all cases the public interest and the paramount importance of protecting fundamental rights and freedoms online. Protecting children or curbing the spread of hateful speech that can incite extremism and possibly terrorist acts are worthwhile goals, but de facto censorship through legislation to block and filter is not a solution.

However, I think it is also important to point out to Internet freedom advocates that it is not enough to say “hands off the Internet”.

We owe the very existence of the Internet, not to mention its diversity and vitality, to the fact that it has largely escaped regulation. These concerns cannot be answered with an insistence that things should stay as they are for fear that they could get worse. Indeed, if there is any lesson that the development of the Internet over the past 30 years has taught us, things never stay the same and can change more profoundly than anyone could have possibly expected.

What cannot be emphasized enough is that how these issues are resolved is not of concern only to self-identified netizens or special interests. It is not an academic question, as anyone who is involved in fighting for media freedom in the world can tell you. There are real world consequences – bloggers are jailed, journalists receive death threats, people in many parts of the world are effectively cut off from sources of information due to government blocking or because they live on the wrong side of the digital divide.

What we need most of all is an open discussion involving governments, business, activists, journalists and experts. Closed-door discussions on issues that profoundly affect all of us are not acceptable.

Any attempts at Internet policy must be discussed openly, with the broadest possible involvement, and must be examined for their implications for the free flow of information.

How to balance a legitimate need for regulation with the need to ensure access and protect free expression online is not a question that can be definitively answered. It requires constant and continuous assessment. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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