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Freedom and development: Stockholm Internet Forum 2013

Media current

As the world grapples with how to (or not to) govern the Internet, countries are starting to stake their claim for “thought leadership” in this contentious area.

For example, the UK has begun a process on cyber-security, which started with the London conference on Cyberspace in 2011, and will continue in Seoul, 2013. It focuses on the threats that the Internet brings. Important stuff, and an area that Russia, China and Iran have emphasised heavily in recent years.

In contrast, the Swedes have chosen Freedom of Expression online, and the links between freedom and development, as their area for thought leadership. This week’s Stockholm Internet Forum will be the second such meeting, and it brings together politicians, human rights activists, bloggers, and representatives of the business and technical communities.

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A focus on freedom

For me, the focus on freedom at last year’s meeting (ed:2014 SAVED BY WAYBACK MACHINE, sorry to lose .Nxt) was a refreshing change from the rather downbeat UK emphasis on cyber threats. We heard from bloggers and activists who have been using the Internet to get news and images out of conflict zones such as Syria, and heard of the dangers they have to navigate. Others expressed anger at European and US companies which provide repressive regimes with “dual use” technology which assists in identifying bloggers and cyber-dissidents.

This year, I’ll be moderating the Opening and Wrap Up sessions. Panels will include Carl Bildt, Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister. He has long followed Internet Governance, and is one of the few senior politicians globally who has not only heard of ICANN, but can speak eloquently about UN processes (such as WCIT) without that wild-eyed “Where’s my brief?” look.

Yoani Sanchez, Internet freedom in action

Among the panelists will be Yoani Sanchez, Cuban blogger, whose blog – Generacion Y – has gained 3 million readers, and has been banned in her homeland Cuba. Why was it such a threat to the authorities? Is it her gently humorous descriptions of her crumbling apartment building, where neighbours take on ad hoc roles as “water pumpers” and “lift menders”? Is it her gentle send-up of the state TV, the “smug little fatty” in the corner, which shows life as it should be, not as it is? Or is it her observations about the “paralysis caused by the sense of being watched”, which instils a hopelessness in people, to the extent that they view “criticising, insisting and demanding (as) bad for your health”?

Innovations since last year include the “unconference” which used online voting systems to select workshops. The format of the meeting promises to be vibrant and interactive, with live Twitter feeds, remote moderators who can buzz the moderator to intervene, and plenty of audience participation.

Security matters, but …

Whatever the content of the sessions, the focus on freedom of expression, and how open architecture and processes can enhance development rather than the opposite, are all a welcome relief, an important contribution to the global dialogue. Yes, we need to be safe, but we also need to cherish the fragile freedoms that we enjoy – to moan, criticise, pillory authority figures, and share information about what’s really going on. These freedoms are easy to take for granted, but there are numerous, insidious ways in which they can be eroded whether by governments, big companies, over zealous enforcement of intellectual property laws, or technical measures such as deep packet inspection, blocking and filtering.

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