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Freedom and prosperity in other countries must start with freedom online at home. We in the UK simply must practice what we preach

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Is access alone enough?
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Dominique Lazanski
On 12 November 2012 12:48

I have just returned from the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that was held this year in Baku, Azerbaijan. Every year stakeholders from business, government, civil society, and academia, among many others, meet to discuss issues concerning the Internet and its development. This year’s theme “Internet Governance for Sustainable Human, Economic and Social Development” was supposed to focus on the Internet for growth and prosperity.

Sadly, I must report that the weeklong event was overshadowed by the very fact that it took place in a dictatorship hostile to those that oppose the regime. It was an interesting and challenging week to say the least.

Throughout the week a number of individuals highlighted the lack of freedom online in Azerbaijan. Emin Milli, a former prisoner of conscience, sent a letter to President Aliyev demonstrating the need for reform through his own experiences and Mike Harris, from Index on Censorship, asked why such a crucial conference was held in an oppressive regime.

But the most forceful attack on the issue in Azerbaijan came from Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, who gave a speech entitled “Protecting a free media in Azerbaijan” in which she said, “But most of all, I want those in power, in Azerbaijan and elsewhere, to know that these repressive restrictions on media freedom, of whatever kind, are unacceptable.” But that was not all. On the day following her speech Ms. Kroes went to a local prison hospital to (unsuccessfully) see several political prisoners.

Press releases and quotes were sent out about her work while at the IGF, but it all resulted in the hacking of EU officials’ computers (I was a room away when it happened). The malignance of this act hardly needs explaining.

The Internet Governance forum takes place in a year that has seen the global struggle for control of the Internet. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will convene the World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT) in a few short weeks to renegotiate a treaty on global communications. This two-week conference is fraught with controversy as the ITU attempts to justify its existence while countries who clamp down on freedom online (and others) propose to make the Internet over regulated and shadow of its former self. (See this on Vint Cerf’s sensible approach to the WCIT)

The IGF featured workshops on the ITU and WCIT, cyber security, infrastructure, growth, economic benefits, and freedom online – all of this with Azerbaijan as the backdrop to these discussions.

I experienced all of this first hand as I went from workshop to workshop and spoke on the benefits of open data and the innovative products and services that it can bring. What was clear to me at the end of this week is that it isn’t enough to just have free access online, we must spread the ideas of freedom and the fruits of prosperity to those who have not experienced them yet. We can not just talk about being free online, we must follow that up with education and action like helping to build infrastructure or teaching skills. Enabling others to think and work for themselves with all the support that we can is key.

For all of the flack that major Internet companies get for issues around privacy and taxation, they play an important part in this. Google sets up Internet exchange points and offers free access to data for developing countries. Microsoft supports apprentices and invests in businesses in developing countries. Yahoo! has an active business and human rights program. And the list goes on. An army of volunteers, businesses, charities, and governments support work in oppressive and developing countries. This should not be overlooked.

However, freedom and prosperity in other countries must start with freedom online at home. We in the UK simply must practice what we preach. We cannot let legislation like the Digital Economy Act and the Communications Capabilities Development Programme go on when those in other countries don’t have the luxury and freedom that we enjoy.

When framed in the context of what I’ve seen this last week, the very idea of collecting data or blocking websites seems ridiculous and incredibly naïve. Illegal action online must be adjudicated in courts with due process. Extra-judicial bodies cannot determine how we communicate, work, and engage online. We have the rule of law and we must guarantee that above all else that rule of law is maintained.

We enjoy that luxury and as citizens in a free society we must act in ways that make other countries and other individuals understand what it means to live in a freedom with unencumbered access to the Internet.

Dominique Lazanski spent over 10 years in the Internet industry in Silicon Valley and works for the Tax Payers' Alliance in the United Kingdom. She tweets at @dml

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