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Keeping the Internet Promise in the OSCE

Internet freedom was on the agenda of the Helsinki Commission last Friday. The Helsinki Commission is an independent agency of the federal government that monitors compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Declaration in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) countries. The Commission convened several experts to discuss Internet freedom (or rather lack thereof) in the OSCE countries, building on a report recently released by the OSCE on the same topic. The concern expressed by the members of the Commission is that the potential of the Internet as an enabler and accelerator of democratic reform and social change might be compromised by governmental interference. After analyzing current trends in OSCE countries, the expert witnesses offered the Commission suggestions on how the US and the international community could help keep the promises made by OSCE countries to protect human rights into the digital age.

The witnesses named Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia as among the countries having established the worst practices in terms of Internet freedom. Turkey, which has been blocking access to thousands of websites, and EU-member Hungary, whose new media law caused an outcry earlier this year, were also mentioned several times. The witnesses noted that governments now employ a wide-range of technological strategies to control the Internet, from “just-in-time” selective blocking of the websites of human rights organizations or opposition groups through DDoS attacks or the use of malware, to counter-information campaigns that may involve hiring counter-bloggers or hacking and injecting content into certain unwanted websites. Rafal Rohozinski of Citizen Lab emphasized that these second and third generation controls cannot be addressed by circumvention tools. These new techniques, however, have not supplanted more direct, age-old methods of discouraging people from exercising their freedom of expression on the Internet. Intimidation through abusive prosecutions and misinformation are still going strong and have proven to have a very powerful chilling effect for which there is no easy fix, as underlined by Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Just as governmental restrictions to the free flow of information take several forms, so should strategies to combat them. According to Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, efforts to combat Internet oppression worldwide should start at home: the US should lead by example. To Rafal Rohozinski, that means showing moral courage and making the difficult decision to support fundamental rights, even when it involves tradeoffs in other areas like cybersecurity. Mr Rohozinski also counselled that the US should resist attempts by some countries to grant exclusive jurisdiction over Internet governance matters to governments and international organizations and instead continue promoting multistakeholderism. Mr Rohozinski also recommended that the US start considering access to online content as a trade matter and use its position as a major trade partner to exert influence on enemies of the Internet, while Ms Mijatovic noted that more countries should recognize Internet access as a human right.

While Daniel Baer from the State Department regarded the creation of the Global Network Initiative as a positive sign showing that the private sector now had a greater awareness of its human rights responsibilities, David Kramer, president of Freedom House, pushed for all ICT companies to systematically conduct human rights impact assessments to minimize potential negative impacts on Internet freedom in the OSCE region.

Finally, Ms. Mijatovic and Dr. Baer stressed the need for training and education, to improve people’s understanding of the Internet and of their rights. Mr Sigal reaffirmed that it is critical to encourage citizens to use the Internet to get involved in, and promote, change—citing the Roskomvzyatka project in Russia that allows citizens to report and map instances of corruption.

In all, the hearing served as a stark reminder of the growing range of threats to Internet freedom. Multiple witnesses again underscored the need for a range of strategies to address these trends, including but moving beyond circumvention technologies. And finally, one common theme emerged throughout the hearing: Internet freedom begins at home. The US and other allies committed to Internet freedom must lead by example and remain vigilant about how domestic policies may be used or interpreted abroad.

The next important step for the OSCE will take place in December in Lithuania, where the OSCE members are expected to adopt a commitment to Internet freedom, and hopefully, keep their Internet promise.