Why is a crucial conference on internet freedom taking place in a dictatorship?

It’s of deep concern that a conference on internet freedom is being held in one of the world’s most tawdry dictatorships, writes Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, at his piece for The Daily Telegraph.

For Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev, the hosting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Baku is yet another propaganda coup in a year marked by the Eurovision Song Contest and the launch of Azerbaijan’s bid for Baku to host the 2020 Olympic Games. The regime is slick – it spent an estimated $500 million on Eurovision alone, hires the smoothest spin doctors, and takes British MPs on all expenses paid trips to see “the real Azerbaijan” (as opposed to the Azerbaijan where their Parliament contains not a single opposition MP).

Azerbaijan is also a country with a track record of persecuting internet activists, such as bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada. Elnur Majidli, a Strasbourg-based blogger and internet activist, was threatened with a 12 year jail sentence for "inciting hatred" after setting up Facebook groups that facilitated rare public protests in Azerbaijan during 2011. Because of his online activism, police officers turned up at his family home. His father was held for eight hours by the police, then swiftly lost his job in the state shipping firm Caspar, all because his son set up a Facebook group. Majidli junior cannot return to Azerbaijan. State TV broadcasts programmes that allege Facebook and Twitter cause criminality among Azerbaijan’s young people. Just last year, the country’s chief psychiatrist warned that social media caused mental disorders.

This is the country that will host the IGF (a United Nations initiative) and help set the framework for the future of internet freedom. While a bitter irony for brave people like Majidli, it’s more worryingly symbolic. Russia and China have been particularly vocal in their desire to grab control of the internet – and the IGF is one important vehicle where they can build alliances to begin this process. It isn’t just autocratic states that want state-led regulation of the internet. Just last year, Brazil and South Africa called for a global internet governance body. It’s a call that has delighted the dictators who recognise that taming the internet is a large job that cannot be dealt with solely at national level. It isn’t just about the state censoring websites and ISPs, but also controlling protocols, the export of technologies and the telecommunications infrastructure. As Prof. Milton Mueller argues in the next issue of Index on Censorship magazine:

"Internet technology – TCP/IP protocols – can be installed in computers in North Korea, but it won’t make communications in that country free. If a repressive government owns and operates the telecommunications infrastructure, blocks trade in computer and telecom equipment, does not allow a free market for access, devices or services to develop … it’s [then] easy to contain and control the internet."

If the future governance of the internet were in the hands of a statutory international body there is no doubt that countries like China and Russia would attempt to undermine the multiple underpinnings that ensure internet freedom. They may start by undermining the ability of private telecoms companies to negotiate directly and freely with each other on how their networks operate and bring in state oversight. Or they might turn telecoms companies, many of which are still state-owned, into the gatekeepers of internet services to fragment the internet. Current draconian proposals on cybersecurity hark back to a time when state monopolies like BT ruled supreme and had teams of spooks working internally to tap phones. They expose the concern that the borderless internet is making the Westphalian approach to national security increasingly redundant. As Index points out in a recent policy paper, while pursuing a global agenda, states continue to curtail net freedom at home. Last summer Russia created a blacklist of websites that contain “extremist” content (condemned by Russian NGOs and political activists who fear they will be targeted). China defends the borders of its increasingly national internet with its “Great Firewall” (also known tellingly as the “Golden Shield Project”) and has an internal army of censors including 20-50,000 internet police officers alongside a further 250,000 active party members who monitor and report online content.

To discuss internet governance with this darkening global outlook in a place such as Azerbaijan should wake slumbering Western democrats. The backdrop to a discussion can make a difference. The World Summit on the Information Society, the IGF’s predecessor, was held in pre-revolutionary Tunisia in 2005. Ronald Koven of the World Press Freedom Committee saw first-hand what happens when you hold an internet freedom conference in an autocracy. Speeches criticising Tunisia’s human rights record were pulled, including a speech by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, Tunisian delegates shouted down views they disliked at the open forums, a Belgium cameraman had his equipment seized by the security services. Worse still it is alleged that the security services had intercepted emails between NGOs and the German Embassy's Goethe Institute as they turned up on mass to prevent Tunisian dissidents from attending a meeting there. Koven told me that prior to the meeting in Geneva, a group of Tunisians approached him and said they were looking forward to seeing him in Tunis as "Ça sera voter fete" ("It will be your holiday") a colloquialism meaning, “You'll get a working over”. A similar pattern has preceded the IGF. Internet activists have been rounded up and NGOs and politicians have been warned their hotel rooms may be bugged.

As the Arab Spring has shown, the internet is helping to free people across the world from the iron grip of autocracy. The leaking of cables by Tunisian dissident website Nawaat exposed the corruption of former President Ben Ali and helped topple his dictatorship. The internet made it easier than ever before for activists from across the Middle East to organise during the Arab Spring, hence the former Egyptian government attempting to hold back the revolutionary tide by turning it off. So it’s of deep concern that the Internet Governance Forum, one the most important global conferences on internet freedom, is being held in Azerbaijan – one of the world’s most tawdry dictatorships.


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