Black Friday

Internet freedom and democracy: Can they exist together?

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

April 23, 2015

A recent Guardian article asks whether the Internet can be saved without harming democracy. We will explore this, but perhaps a better query would be: can democracy be saved if the Internet is harmed? For what are the prospects for democracy, if free speech and open communication is impeded by government and corporate abuses?

Last week in The Hague a prestigious group of policymakers and influencers released the Global Commission on Internet Governance statement which, among other things, urged initiatives to preserve and protect human rights online. A parallel concern was to restore trust and confidence in the Internet, which has been under assault by spurious practices by governments and corporations, both of which have undermined public faith in the technology with overreaching, obnoxious surveillance – the former focusing on personal communication, the latter on accumulating and using personal data.

The thorny question of whether governments can keep their citizens safe without obtrusive surveillance and thus strike a balance between national security and personal privacy, is a preeminent issue and a centerpiece of the 18 page report. On this, the commission comes out firmly on the side of transparency, accountability, restraint, and the primacy of human rights:

The obligation of states to protect and promote rights to privacy and freedom of expression are not optional. Even if they are not absolute rights, limitations to these rights, even those based on national security concerns, must be prescribed by law, guaranteeing that exceptions are both necessary and proportionate. Governments should guarantee the same human rights protection to all individuals within their borders.

On the national security/individual privacy debate the commission’s position is clearly staked out. Weakened security, even at the behest and to the benefit of the “good guys” (ostensibly law enforcement) is weakened security for the bad guys to exploit too. But companies, likewise, they insist, must be more transparent and less obtrusive in their insatiable appetite for user’s personal information. Foremost is the full and frank divulging of the privacy trade-offs that come with “free” services. In other words, “to what extent will my data be collected, stored and shared.”

In this regard, the report examines the more treacherous pitfalls of private commercial surveillance, that will only become more insidious with the evolution of the internet of things. As a result of this, users will be exposed to privacy threats like never before, and therefore more transparency is required regarding the collection and use of personal data.

A subtext of the report encourages intertwined internet governance, where the corporations come to the same table as the governments that regulate them. Only in this way can we avoid the spectre of global giants such as Google operating around the world with impunity, without regulation, and without competition.

The Guardian has an overall favourable opinion of the Commission and its report for providing a viable framework for privacy and security, and for being sensitive to the need to make sure that both corporate and government entities are accountable and responsive in an ethical manner.

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