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A study in irony: Censorship at the IGF

Our friends over at the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) were asked to remove a banner promoting their new publication on Internet censorship, Access Controlled, at the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt on Sunday. At the time, UN security officials failed to cite any rule or regulation that the banner violated, instead referring to complaints received by a member state. The banner referenced China’s “Great Firewall” and outlined the book’s focus on new trends in information control and censorship online. The confrontation followed a similar incident earlier in the day where the same officials asked ONI to stop handing out fliers that referenced censorship in Tibet.

IGF Executive Coordinator Markus Kummer later identified the complaining member as the Chinese delegation. However, he explained that officials removed the banner because it violated a rule that forbade posters, and not because the banner was critical of China. Other IGF attendees point out that other banners were allowed to remain elsewhere in the various IGF facilities. You can watch a video of the banner incident here and Mr. Kummer’s explanation here.

It is hard for me to think of a more effective way for China to draw attention to its censorship practices than to stifle discussion about Internet censorship at a high profile international event like the IGF (and in an era of cell phone video and YouTube). It is also hard for me to think of a scenario that could more concisely illustrate the need for continued attention, advocacy, and dialogue around resisting Internet censorship — at the IGF and other governance fora. Earlier this year, China advocated for shutting down the IGF after its current mandate expires. Here, China makes another point: it can successfully exert its power to retaliate against its critics in what is supposed to be an open forum for dialogue, capturing and deploying the apparatus of the UN in doing so.

The IGF remains an important, though imperfect, venue for multistakeholder dialogue in Internet governance matters, including human rights and free expression. CDT signed onto a statement put together by the Dynamic Coalition on Freedom of Expression supporting the continuation of the IGF to this end. However, dialogue at the IGF must remain open to all stakeholders to encourage free exchange of ideas, even if criticism makes some states uncomfortable. As Ron Deibert of ONI puts it, “If we are not allowed to discuss topics such as internet censorship, surveillance and privacy at a forum on internet governance, then what is the point of the IGF?”