OIF staff attending the 6th Annual State of the Net conference last week in Washington, DC, were honored to witness the first iteration of the Judith Krug Memorial Intellectual Freedom Panel. The panel, moderated by David Weller of Wilmer Hale, was titled “Global Free Expression: Will the Internet Reign or Get Reigned In?” and featured quite provocative speakers from a variety of perspectives.
The panel had real resonance thanks in large part to recent publicity over the role of the Internet in China, with Google announcing it would discontinue its practices of censoring results on Google.cn. Alan Davidson, Google’s Director of U.S. Public Policy and Government Affairs, cited a serious attack on its infrastructure that included compromised email accounts of some Chinese human rights activists as the impetus for the policy change. Davidson said threats to free expression online were increasing, and that 25 countries currently block Google outright and 12 block YouTube. He emphasized that free expression is part of his company’s core values and that censorship is a trade barrier for companies like Google, urging that free expression online be emphasized in diplomatic efforts. Davidson also expressed concern about intermediary liability, the practice of holding second-party companies liable for the content posted online – such as was the case in Italy, where Google is facing criminal charges for a video posted on YouTube of teenagers abusing another teen. Davidson argued that without a better international framework for dealing with issues of censorship, copyright, privacy, and security, online communication and freedom of expression could be severely compromised.
Rebecca MacKinnon of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and an expert on Internet policy and China, warned against assuming that the existence of the Internet meant that freedom would spread automatically. She also posed the question of whether Internet governance should be left in the hands of governments. MacKinnon pointed to the Global Network Initiative (GNI) as an example of corporations, nonprofits, and academic institutions working toward the goals of opposing censorship and protecting the privacy of individuals online, but she asked what assurances we have that these goals are being met.
Ambassador Philip Verveer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, called himself the “optimist” on the panel. He said that Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech made it clear that Internet freedom is part of traditional U.S. values. He highlighted four aspects of the freedom to connect: Internet governance that allows the Internet to develop as it will; increasing connectivity and working with countries that need assistance; cybersecurity; and international legal issues, including cloud computing, privacy, and jurisdictional issues. He lauded American investment in technologies that help human rights activists circumvent filters, but noted that these technologies are not an undifferentiated good, and can be used for “disagreeable” purposes.
Overall, it was an extremely interesting panel and one that would have delighted Judith Krug herself, whom Davidson called the “grande dame” of the Internet free speech crowd. The session drew attention and consideration to the truly international nature of free expression issues today and the urgency of recognizing that threats to online speech affect us all. As CDT‘s Jerry Berman concluded, governments, companies, and Internet users must unite and work together; the Internet is an important force for freedom, but ensuring that freedom requires work.