Internet Freedom

Barrier to Information: Barrier to Commerce

This week, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative went knocking on China's door, seeking information from Beijing about their government's censorship of the internet. The implication of this inquiry coming from USTR, of course, is that the Obama Administration is getting serious about internet freedom not just as a human rights issue, but as an issue of commerce.

Secretary Clinton's State Department has shown remarkable global leadership over the past two years, clearly defining the U.S.' position that freedoms of expression and assembly must be protected online just as they are offline. And last year, the Commerce Department's (then under the leadership of Gary Locke, who is now Ambassador to China) Internet Policy Task Force sought comment on treating barriers to the free flow of information as barriers to trade. NDN hosted a Commerce Department official last year for a discussion about the Department's approach to treating censorship as a trade barrier; you can watch a video of the event here.

Of course, the way China censors the internet really does hamper U.S. business interests. Twitter is blocked, Facebook is blocked, YouTube is blocked. Google shut down its operations in the mainland two years ago, ostensibly on account of not wanting to censor their search results anymore. Each of these sites deals with censorship in other countries-- Iran has a harsh censorship regime, so too do countries like Syria and North Korea, and even countries like Turkey and Thailand have in the past issued blanket bans on certain services. But in the case of China, we're talking about the world's biggest market, where blocking of sites like Twitter and Facebook allows homegrown alternatives to prosper. Sounds a lot like protectionism, no?

Specifically, the USTR is seeking "clarification" about what, exactly, China's censorship rules and policies are. The request seems almost tongue-in-cheek: China's rules (as is the case with most censoring governments) are notoriously, deliberately vague and ambiguous. Some sites are blocked sometimes, others are always blocked, still others are just partially blocked. By asking the Chinese government to share and explain its rules, the office of the USTR is asking a question without an answer. And they got a commensurately absurd response from the Chinese government spokesperson, who pointed out that Beijing "supports" the use of the internet (over 400 million users! how many have you got?!) and then segued into commentary about national sovereignty.

It's a tricky issue-- and a very new issue-- and, admittedly, among the myriad challenges in the U.S. relationship with China, the impact of internet censorship on U.S. business interests isn't paramount. Still, it's greatly encouraging to see the Obama Administration taking on the issue of internet freedom from another angle. For those who don't find human rights a compelling case to fight for policy change, perhaps the commercial argument will be more persuasive.

Barriers to Information Freedom: Barriers to Trade

Earlier this week, Google's public policy shop released a white paper arguing for obstructions to the global free flow of information to be seen as barriers to free trade. The paper came out on the deadline for comments on the Commerce Department's notice of inquiry on this subject (though apparently the deadline was extended for a few extra weeks-- there's still time!), and took on all the big questions sought by Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force:  How are governments restricting the internet? What is the impact of these restrictions?  What can we do about it? The white paper is a good read, but 25 pages, so, forthwith, a summary and some thoughts:

The white paper outlines the tremendous economic impact and potential of the internet (1.7 billion users! [i.e.: customers] Global markets for local companies!), and then spends considerable time describing the ways that "more than 40" governments disrupt the free flow of information on the internet, identifying four "common characteristics" of the restrictions.  First, restrictive governments will often impose rules or regulations on online service providers without making those rules clear and publicly available.  Second, governments will block entire platforms or services based on individual pieces of content or the actions of a small number of users. Third, foreign companies are frequently disadvantaged in favor of local companies. And fourth, restrictive governments apply their laws arbitrarily and haphazardly, targeting some violators while ignoring others.

These restrictions have real impacts on trade and economic growth, as the next section of the paper argues. With restrictions, companies have a harder time reaching their customers, and even when they do, the degradation of their service lowers its value. When restrictions target "intermediary" companies-- search engines, blogging platforms, cloud-based services-- the effects are magnified, as they impact not just the blocked service, but other businesses-- both local and foreign-- that rely on the service for their own business. The ultimate effects of restrictions are lowered revenues for internet companies and others who depend on the blocked services, a high degree of uncertainty that makes it impossible for firms to plan their work, and unfair advantages given-- often intentionally-- to local, unrestricted businesses.

The white paper suggests three main steps for policymakers to combat barriers to free information/trade on the internet.  First, they must call attention to the restrictions imposed by foreign governments and the effects they have on the global economy. Second, policymakers must take action in instances where restrictions on the free flow of information online are in violation of existing international trade rules. The paper puts particular emphasis on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which extends the WTO's jurisdiction over goods to services, including information and communications services.  

Third, they must protect free flows of information in future international trade rules by establishing global openness as the default position, and mandating stronger transparency rules. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement currently in negotiation already includes language that acknowledges the importance of information freedom in facilitating trade and restricts barriers to any information flow. The paper mentions other trade forums that could be ripe for introducing these ideas, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO, should it move forward.

This white paper is a valuable contribution to a side of the "internet freedom" conversation that has gotten less attention this year.  In her January speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary Clinton made clear that the free flow of information was an economic issue, as well as a strategic issue and a human rights issue. Most discussion, however, has centered on a universal right of access to information, described by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  While compelling and stirringly idealistic (I've defended this right on this blog many times before), arguments based on issues of human rights often don't gain the purchase in the policy world that economic arguments do.  If we're going to knock down barriers to information freedom-- for the sake of human rights, economic interests, Western values, or whatever else-- taking the economic approach is likely to be the most effective.

Related to white paper, the Center for Democracy and Technology just published a really interesting blog post about fees charged to Chinese universities by their government for accessing "international data." Any time a student at a major university in China accesses a news or information portal hosted in another country, they pay a tax. As Google's paper mentions, restrictions on information freedom have the effect-- intentionally, in China's case-- of creating a fragmented internet: individual "intranets" rather than a single, global network. The sort of "data protectionism" that CDT describes inevitably deepens national divides, making the world less global and interconnected, and preserves the disparities in information access that idealists once hoped the internet could tear down. It's troubling to watch these barriers erected and strengthened.

Back in August, we held an event here at NDN on the global free flow of information, and were fortunate to host Anita Ramasastry, co-chair of the "Free Flow of Information on the Internet" working group in the Commerce Department's Internet Policy Task Force; she spent much of her talk discussing the trade approach to information freedom.  You can read a summary and watch a video of the event here.

Commerce's NOI on the Global Free Flow of Information

A couple weeks back, the Commerce Department released their Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on the Global Free Flow of Information on the Internet. Basically, Commerce is looking for responses from stakeholders to help the Department advise the President on how information freedom is restricted on the internet, what impact those restrictions have on the U.S. economy, and how to craft policy in an intelligent way to allow the internet to continue to be a driver of economic growth in the U.S. Just by itself, the Notice is a good primer on these subjects, and I'd encourage you to give it a read.

This is part of a broader effort of Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force, which has put out similar NOIs on issues surrounding privacy, copyright, and cybersecurity. In this latest NOI, all of these issues come together in the section on "intermediary liability." How we answer questions about how the internet industry will work with (or be forced to work with) governments on issues of copyright, privacy and security will have profound impacts on online freedom of information and expression.  From the NOI:

Governments must balance the interests of users who post information on the Internet, and other parties who access the user-generated material. In seeking to prevent the distribution of objectionable or illegal material, many governments have looked to Internet intermediaries to serve a role in implementing governmental restrictions on information. However, the burden of screening, analyzing and carefully filtering each piece of user-generated information is a task beyond the resources available to most Internet intermediaries. Moreover, if governments burden intermediaries with excessive or ill-defined responsibility for content not their own, then they will have no choice but to exercise harmful restrictions on the free flow of information, goods and services online. Governments therefore need to consider the effectiveness of requiring intermediaries to enforce or implement information restrictions against the costs that may deter intermediaries from operating in particular jurisdictions or from creating new Internet business models.

More broadly, it's good to see the Commerce Department taking up these issues. While I've always been an advocate for human rights, I have no trouble seeing that "restrictions on internet freedom violate the universal human right of access to information" might be less persuasive to some people than "restrictions on the free flow of information is bad for business." Both approaches are valuable, and I hope Commerce and State will continue to harmonize their efforts on these issue.

In July, we hosted Anita Ramasastry of the IPTF for a discussion on online information freedom. A recap and video of the event is here, if you'd like to check it out.

New Paper on "Internet Freedom" & "21st Century Statecraft"

Hot off the inter-presses today is a new paper from NDN & the New Policy Institute by yours truly looking at the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" and "Internet Freedom" initiatives. The paper is more overview than analysis-- something I decided was necessary after reading the July essay on digital diplomacy in Foreign Affairs that I took down in a blog post and then delicately deconstructed for Foreign Policy. From the executive summary:

Not intended to be comprehensive or critical, this paper attempts to define and clarify these initiatives and the arguments supporting them, and offer a platform for further debate. These are new, evolving but crucially important issues, and informed conversation about the role of technology in our world is critical if these technologies are to be a positive force in history.

I mean, right? The hope is that this paper will be a resource for people new to these issues, and a fact-based starting point for further debate.  So here it is. Enjoy.

Recap: Advancing the Global Free Flow of Information

Earlier this week, we hosted a great conversation here at NDN on internet freedom and the global free flow of information. We heard from Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, and Anita Ramasastry of the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration.

At Commerce, Ms. Ramasastry is also co-chair of the "Free Flow of Information on the Internet" working group in the Internet Policy Task Force. She spoke about the work of the IPTF, which has consisted of beginning to look at how censorship and restrictions on the free flow of information may impact trade, investment or economic growth. The Free Flow of Information working group has begun to meet with a number of stakeholders to determine the economic impact of restrictions and censorship, and is planning to publish a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) that will formally reqeust input from stakeholders to determine what restrictions exist, where they exist, and what burden they impose on business. 

Mr. Calingaert opened his talk by asserting that the internet offers great potential to advance human freedom, but is under assault from authoritarian governments.  He observed that many the most restrictive regimes in the world had become a great deal more technologically sophisticated in their censorship, contributing to five years of decline in freedom. He offered four major policy efforts that need to be pursued to promote internet freedom: First, a strengthening of the international consensus around internet freedom and bringing together stakeholders with a commitment to these issues. Second, to stop western companies from abetting internet censorship and surveillance. Third, empowering netizens and giving them a voice to fight against restrictive practices. Fourth, restrictions on the free flow of information need to be challenged diplomatically and multilaterally.

But don't take my word for it... The full video, including the feisty Q&A session, is here (the sound is a little low, so you may have to crank the volume):

Global Information Freedom: A Primer

I hope you'll be able to make it to our event tomorrow on practical approaches to internet freedom and the global free flow of information.  Should be an interesting talk.  You can RSVP here.  If you can't make it, tune in for the webcast here, which gets rolling at 12:15 pm EDT.

Below, I've pulled together some of our past work on internet & information freedom. Enjoy:

Phony Democracy and the Internet's Influence 7/6/10 by Sam duPont

Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out 5/20/10 by Sam duPont

Alec Ross on How the Internet Will Shape Open and Closed Societies 4/13/10 by Sam duPont

The Practical Questions of Internet Freedom 2/23/10 by Sam duPont

China's Censorship and Information Freedom 1/26/10 by Sam duPont

Should Access to Mobile Networks be a Universal Right? 12/21/09: by Simon Rosenberg

Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution 7/15/09: with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye, and Theo Yedinsky

Harnessing the Mobile Revolution 10/8/08: By Tom Kalil

A Laptop in Every Backpack 05/01/07: By Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg

Upcoming Event on Internet Freedom: Tackling Barriers to the Global Free Flow of Information

Since Secretary Clinton's groundbreaking speech on Internet Freedom in January, the conversation about the free global flow of information has devolved into a back-and forth between tech-utopians and tech-doomsayers. Internet and mobile networks can be used effectively by dictators and democracy activists alike, and the more relevant question is how can we, as supporters of democracy, free commerce, and unfettered access to information, craft policy and otherwise support the use of these technologies to advance our goals.

I'm excited to say that on Tuesday, July 20, at 12 p.m., Global Mobile will be hosting a conversation about practical approaches to internet freedom and the global free flow of information.  Joining us will be Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, and Anita Ramasastry, Senior Policy Advisor in the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. A third panelist may be forthcoming, but you'll have to check back later for news on that.

I hope you'll RSVP if you can make it to our offices on 15th Street.  If not, we'll of course be webcasting the event live.  Should be an interesting conversation on a timely subject. I, for one, am looking forward to getting pas the hype hearing about how various groups and organizations are practically addressing barriers to the global free flow of information. Which is to say nothing of the sandwiches that will be available, as well.

Alec Ross on How the Internet Will Shape Open & Closed Societies

We had a great time yesterday with Alec Ross, who came to talk about how connection technologies are shaping societies around the world. He began with the argument that, in the 21st century, the major fault line dividing countries will fall between open and closed societies-- rather than the right-left division that defined the 20th century. He offered a compelling historical perspective on the open-closed divide, going back more than two millennia to contrast the progress and vibrancy seen in societies with open, tolerant attitudes, with the intellectual stagnation of closed societies.

He went on to argue that 2009 was the worst year for the internet that we have seen, as far as openness and freedom of information. Increasingly, states see the internet as a force they can control-- and will create something like a national intranet to filter out unwanted content. Turkey, Australia, Italy and others have all shown hesitation to embrace a free and open internet. While the global network does hold great potential for promoting openness and freedom, some states are becoming increasingly savvy at using the same technologies to stifle freedoms of expression and information.

Ross concluded by saying that the greatest implications in the open vs. closed debate will be in developing countries.  Latin America, Africa and Asia are now determining what the internet will look like in their own countries, and their decisions will determine whether their societies benefit from the opportunities afforded by the global network, or whether their poverty is perpetuated by shutting off freedom of expression.

A video of Ross' talk is here (with a full version, including Simon's intro and the Q&A, coming soon):

I couldn't agree more with Ross, and all I'll add now is an observation that the greatest danger posed by China's censorship may not be domestic, but rather in the example it sets for other countries, particularly in the developing world.  China is offering a whole new model of authoritarianism-- the Chinese government has managed to be economically vibrant and geopolitically successful, without relaxing their firm grip on the country.  As poorer countries set out on a path toward development, China offers an unfortunately compelling model for leaders loath to give up any of their power. I applaud the State Department in their efforts to make an even more compelling case for a free and open internet.

Today at Noon: Alec Ross on Connection Technologies in Open & Closed Societies

As I may have mentioned, we're hosting Alec Ross, Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary Clinton, for a speech today on the role of connection technologies in open & closed societies.  He'll be talking about the tension between societies that are increasingly open by virtue of connection technologies, and societies that are increasingly closed by government suppression and manipulation of connection technologies and communications networks.  Cool, right?

If you can, come by our offices at noon, and if you can't, we'll be webcasting the speech LIVE, starting at 12:10 pm EDT.  Tune in here. And if you miss it altogether, we'll have video up on our YouTube page and on this very blog in the coming days.  So, no excuses.

Censorship & China, Technology & Freedom

The NY Times had a great article yesterday on censorship in China.  While much of the focus here has been on the relationship between Google and China, the Times smartly distinguishes between China's censorship of unwanted foreign content-- which it does comprehensively and successfully-- and the censorship of domestic content-- which is a heckuva lot harder to do, but a far more pernicious evil. From the article:

Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cellphone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games.

That’s not all. Not content merely to block dissonant views, the government increasingly employs agents to peddle its views online, in the guise of impartial bloggers and chat-room denizens. And increasingly, it is backing state-friendly clones of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all Western sites that have been blocked here for roughly a year.

CensorshipThe government’s strategy, according to Mr. Bandurski and others, is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals.

The government makes no apologies for what it calls “guiding public opinion.” Regulation is crucial, it says, to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party’s monopoly on power.

For anyone wanting to begin learning about China's censorship practices, this article is a great place to start.

And for anyone interested in how connection technologies-- like the internet, mobile phones, social media, etc.-- are both promoting freedom and enabling suppression around the world, I'd encourage you to come to our offices on Monday for a speech from Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton's Senior Adviser on Innovation.  Ross has been one of the forces behind State's 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, and has been a leader in State's new focus on internet freedom. On Monday, he'll be giving a talk on the role of connection technologies in open and closed societies.  Please RSVP here, click here to watch the webcast, or here for more information.

In 2007, NDN published a paper co-authored by Ross and Simon Rosenberg called A Laptop in Every Backpack, which contained one of the first public calls for universal access to the global communications network to be a major domestic and foreign policy priority of the United States.

For more of our work on internet & information freedom, take a look at this backgrounder, and come back to visit Global Mobile for regular commentary on the role of connection technology in promoting freedom around the world.

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