Trolling the Caspian
It was a controversial decision from the very beginning. The annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a UN-sponsored multi-stakeholder event fostering discussion of important internet policy issues. Holding this year’s forum in Azerbaijan, with its penchant for locking up anti-government bloggers and an appalling human-rights record, was always going to tread a fine line. Making the location doubly controversial, the forum prefigured an important meeting on internet regulation to be held next month in Dubai. There, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will debate proposed changes to a major treaty, the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), for the first time since 1988, explicitly raising issues of internet governance and internet freedom in the context of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Unlike the recent resolution on internet freedom adopted by the UN’s Human Rights Council – with only 47 member states – the WCIT meeting will open up the issues for debate in a forum subject to the same vagaries of debate and voting as any UN body, with the full complement of 193 UN General Assembly members, but without the open private-sector and civil-society input the IGF allows. Although some have portrayed the WCIT meeting as the UN making a “power grab” for greater control of the internet, others point out that the ITRs are actually about state control of network operators and the commercial arrangements that define them. States that have yet to fully exploit the economic benefits of internet technology obviously have an interest in greater sovereign control here. In addition, though, proposals put forward by a coalition of states led by Russia and China and including Azerbaijan favour greater sovereign control over cyberspace and suggest the twin issues of cyber-security and internet freedom will be laid bare for discussion for the first time at this level.
In Azerbaijan, IGF attendees experienced the practicalities of compromised internet access for themselves. Slow or non-existent Wi-Fi at the conference venue led some to conclude that the Azeri government was purposely denying them access in an effort to stifle debate. At first, it seemed instead merely the side order to a main dish of post-Soviet incompetence evident in other areas, like visa management at the airport, which took hours, or navigation from the airport to hotels, which resulted in several guests exiting hopelessly lost government buses to find their hotels on foot. In his opening remarks to the forum, Azeri Minister of Communications and Information Technologies Ali Abbasov tried to bolster the country’s hi-tech image, highlighting at every opportunity Azerbaijan’s internet freedom and strong net access. As he pointed out, the internet is not filtered in Azerbaijan, and government figures put internet access at 65 per cent. Although the access figure is disputed, most commentators agree that the internet in Azerbaijan is not filtered.
However, as the week went on, Abbasov’s optimism began to seem misguided, at best, or, more likely, wilfully misleading. A Google Big Tent event, hosted in a spellbinding 12th-century caravanserai in Baku’s old city, provided strong evidence of the cracks beneath Azerbaijan’s hi-tech democratic self-promotion. To Google’s credit, the discussion on internet freedom in Azerbaijan featured both a pro- and an anti-government blogger on stage, each presenting their views on the role of bloggers in political debate in Azerbaijan. When the time came for questions from the audience, an uncomfortable exchange ensued. Questions and answers devolved into a shouting match between pro- and anti-government bloggers in the audience, with the government side demanding that bloggers pay more attention to issues other than democratization – highlighting a refugee crisis in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – and arguing that the internet in Azerbaijan was free. Anti-government bloggers such as the internationally acclaimed Khadija Ismayilova, meanwhile, furiously pointed out that although the internet was not filtered, bloggers were regularly detained and harassed, limiting online speech by default. There was little else discussed in what Google had likely intended to be a free-flowing, wide-ranging debate about internet freedom. Azeri politics dominated the discussion, despite attempts to move the conversation towards bigger, global issues such as Google’s problematic censorship of the Innocence of Muslims in Libya and Egypt.
Two days later, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, delivered a resounding speech on internet freedom. Highlighting the Azeri government’s very real failure to improve press freedom and online rights, even after promising to do so, Kroes called the government to account on its imprisonment of Eynulla Fatullayev, an Azeri journalist, human-rights activist, and winner of the 2012 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. The Azeri government’s response appeared swift. Two of Kroes’ advisors claimed that their laptops were hacked while they worked in their hotel rooms. As the conference ended, rumours circulated that the IGF computers used for presentations in the conference facilities were infected with a virus, and presenters looked askance at the official conference gift: a USB stick emblazoned with the official Azerbaijani symbol.
The IGF experience highlights the distinctive nature of internet freedom. The UN Human Rights Council resolution on internet freedom signed in July this year states that access to the internet and online freedom of expression should be guaranteed. But as the Azeri experience showed, offline protection of civil and human rights matters regardless: The state is still important. Internet freedom reflects the state in which it is experienced – the state does not necessarily reflect the use of the internet. Indeed, Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of the internet, argues that internet access is not, in fact, a human right but a civil one, if it is a right at all. He argues that the internet is instead an enabler of rights, which, by definition, exist separately from the internet.
Data released this week by Google shows that the U.S. leads the world in the number of surveillance requests. In this case, it is not internet freedom defined as access that stops users’ rights being infringed offline, but the political system in which the request takes place – the checks and balances on executive power that accompany those requests. If the Azeri internet is largely unfiltered, then the largest difference between the freedom internet users in the U.S. experience compared to that which their Azeri friends experience is the result of existing democratic structures that govern how offline political activity derived from, and inspired by, the internet is managed. This could mean protest activity organized online, the rights of political bloggers to write without state interference in their private lives, and the rights of citizens to have their data protected by companies to whom they entrust it.
Though in reality simply a UN-sponsored talkfest without real structural influence, the IGF experience in Azerbaijan imbues the upcoming WCIT meeting – and its potentially real regulatory power – with even greater weight. It also shows that internet freedom is the canary in the coalmine of broader human-rights concerns surrounding freedom of opinion and expression. The issue is not only the bird, but also the mine. The meeting in Dubai next month will, for the first time, open up internet freedom to a range of viewpoints matching the range of commitment to civic and human rights worldwide. Its potential – though unlikely – impact will add another layer to ongoing debate about rights more broadly, not just those pertaining to the internet.