Building a Global Policy Framework for Free Expression
On Thursday I had the opportunity to join CDT Executive Director Leslie Harris when she spoke on a panel entitled "Freedom of Expression in the Internet Era" at the State Department's annual Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Officers Conference, "Defending the Defenders." The panel, which also featured speakers from the Jefferson Institute and the International Research & Exchanges Board, reviewed the state of freedom of speech, especially Internet speech, around the world, focusing on the challenges facing the media in restrictive environments. Leslie noted that repressive foreign regimes currently take a reactionary approach to Internet freedom of press, by which a journalist might be imprisoned or a blogger silenced, leading to worldwide outcry. Instead of this incident-based strategy, Leslie urged the proactive establishment of sound front-end policy frameworks for the Internet, opening the door for a free press to evolve on top of that policy. By keeping the barriers to entry low, letting users decide what content they add to and view on the Internet, and not holding operators liable for the content that passes over their networks, Leslie said, policymakers encourage a robust regime unburdened by self-imposed or governmental censorship. While U.S. Foreign Service workers are trying to urge Internet freedom in developing countries, Leslie pointed out, the United States' domestic policies can actually undermine its foreign policy efforts in this regard. Our own government's changing standards for and restrictions on Internet speech as part of the war on terror, along with practices such as demanding that the makers of Internet backbone routers install "backdoors" for law enforcement monitoring into their products, send a "do as we say, not as we do" message to governments already sensitive to U.S. attempts to impose American values on their countries. Inconsistent domestic and foreign practices open the door to allegations of hypocrisy and make it more difficult for State Department and NGO personnel to pursue their missions in the field. "We have to get our own houses in order," Leslie commented, before the U.S. can effectively promote the principles of democracy, civil society, and an open Internet worldwide. The other panelists also expressed concern about increasingly speech-restrictive tendencies, not just by repressive governments, but by democratic governments in Western Europe and America. Leon Morse of the IREX criticized tactics that subtly work against freedom of the press, such as burdensome taxation and registration schemes for media in certain countries, as well as prosecutions under genocide denial laws in European nations that have a chilling effect on the entire media. The Jefferson Institute's Robert Orttung talked about how organizations such as US-AID and American and European philanthropic institutions can promote sustainable media development in areas such as the former Soviet bloc. By putting together entrepreneurial investment funds, said Orttung, donors can help independent journalists in emerging democracies train to deliver high-quality reporting, thereby making their countrymen better informed about topics of local as well as global interest. The panel concluded with a lively question and answer session, during which State Department country officers asked the panelists what they thought of Internet companies' doing business in repressive countries such as China, and also queried the ease and cost to governments of implementing technological restrictions to monitor and control Internet speech. The audience turnout for the panel and the astute questions asked show that State Department personnel do recognize the importance of the Internet to the spread and adoption of democratic principles. With more support from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on Internet free speech issues, beyond the opportunities afforded by an annual meeting, the officers who attended this week's conference will be better able to help the people of developing countries and ensure that the Internet becomes open and accessible to all.