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Thursday, 26 April 2012

Reflections on Stockholm Internet Forum 2012

By Chola Mukanga

The first ever conference on internet freedom and global development was held in Stockholm last week (18th – 19th April). The Stockholm Internet Forum was hosted by Sweden’s Ministry of Affairs and Swedish Development Agency (SIDA).  This "invitation only" event brought together 350 knowledgeable and committed decision-makers, activists, and representatives from civil society, the business sector and the technology community to take part in discussions on Internet freedom. Zambian Economist was delighted to have been specially invited to take part. It afforded us an opportunity to share the Zambian perspective on these important matters and to learn from others around the world on just how the internet can be leveraged for development and how best to secure free access in a world of increasingly competing corporate and political interests.

Information is the heartbeat of development. It enables the creation of ideas. Which in turn frees the poor to influence not only those in power but enables them to forge their pathway out of poverty. The internet is now the largest depository and creator of information. Unhindered and wide access to the internet is critical in confronting today’s development challenges. Yet, in many parts of Africa, particularly our own nation affordable access to the internet is non-existent, let alone a free one! For those countries in Africa where access has widened, authoritarian regimes have tried to use it as tool of surveillance, often limiting the rights of group to use it to challenge those in power. Even this website has seen threats from individuals who often ask us to limit our expression. These issues therefore matter not only in terms of “rights” but also in terms of building a just and economically viable society.

A number of issues touched on these areas, principal among them is the centrality of internet access to the development process. It was interesting to hear various perspectives on this and particularly, some of the evidence of the link between expanding technological access and growth. There was also the usual point that freedom is development and therefore expanding access to internet is vital as both a means and end of development. A more contentious point related to the question of the extent to which access to the internet should be classed as a “human right” on par with other UN declared rights such as “access to water”. Sweden’s Development Minister Gunilla Carlson was particularly sharp in drawing a powerful analogy between the two, when she concluded “Where there is water, there is life. And where there is the Internet, there is hope. Let’s make sure everybody has plenty of both”.

Businesses of course are the primary intermediaries that enable access to internet both through hard and soft infrastructures. Unfortunately, they are also conduits for authoritarian regimes in the suppression of access to the internet. No surprise therefore that the question of businesses and human rights generated the most energetic debate throughout the entire conference. Swedish telecommunication company Erickson as the most prominent represent of businesses was on the hot seat thanks to it’s previous practice of selling equipment to the Syrian government which has been used to monitor the opposition. The challenge of course remains how we ensure that businesses continue to be businesses whilst adhering to human rights. As someone noted, “We need to acknowledge that telecoms are, in a sense, freedom providers. We need to ensure that they are not also the partners of dictators.” Ultimately, how that challenge is resolved is up to governments and consumers who have the power to hold them to account. Solving the collective action problem on the consumer side would therefore appear key, hence the need for such forums.

Governments were not spared, as the participants debated just how societies should “balance” the preservation of security and free use of the internet. The stellar cast of participants, including a NATO commander and a former Chair of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee provided for interesting perspectives on security and internet issues. In recent times there has been tendency for governments to push back on unrestrained use of internet particularly where lives may be threatened. The case of the UK government during the summer riots calling for “shutting down” of some parts of the network was raised by participants as an example of creeping authoritarianism . Indeed, the NATO officer put it aptly noted that we should not exaggerate the security threats posed by the internet. Adding immediately, “I don’t believe in Cybergeddon, but cyber attacks is a significant problem”. The real issue would therefore appear to be that it is not a choice between freedom and security but a proper recognition that there can be no freedom without security, and no security without freedom. The challenge for society is how to ensure that both are treated together and that Governments are not left to determine where the balance lies without wider consent. China was particularly noted as a chief culprit.

In face of these and many other fascinating issues discussed, it seems certainly that the prioritization of internet freedom is long overdue! Throughout the world, including our own country, increasing access to the internet is freeing individuals to act and shape their future. More wide access enables access to knowledge and allows people to easily coordinate with one another for mutual advantage. Simply put, it is right and proper that we fight for increased access to the internet. In Zambia that is the thing we need first and foremost!

The other issue we need to press for is the struggle for freedom – that goes beyond basic access, but having control over the medium of the internet. For the more developed areas of Africa this is fast becoming the pressing issue. As Zambians, it may be a little hard for us to imagine why “freedom of access” may be important where there’s no access period, but we have seen that it does not take long before benign governments recognize the power of the internet and begin to use it to suppress even the limited constituent that has access to it. In that sense pressing for free access at the same time as widening access is vital, if only because it helps minimize long term problems.

This push however, requires careful understanding of its implications. In particular, it is not yet compelling that access to the internet is a human right. By definition a human right is a right that you don’t have to be of a certain sort of human being to enjoy that right. Unfortunately, the notion of rights has been distorted in development circles with the notion of human rights taking on all kinds of strange notions. Everyone is keen to declare their demand a human right, even in cases where legal rights are sufficient. Declaring the internet as a human right may not only lead to significant cost implications for many poor governments, but may also distort the proper understanding of rights.

Similarly, a lot more thinking is needed on the best way for businesses to be part of the solution rather than the problems. Future conferences need to explore more concretely how the private motive and public good can be reconciled in a way that deliver accessible internet or all, particularly in developed countries. A key area is for firms to actively consider internet based technology transfers that would enable poor countries to innovate. Similarly, western governments can be more proactive in encourage these registered companies providing services abroad to undertake more corporate responsibility.

In general the conference was a great start to tackling these important issues. Very well organized! The aspiration of the Swedish hosts was that the Stockholm Internet Forum can feed more energy into international efforts for freedom on the Internet. It is fair to say, the conference certainly achieve with expectations now raised on further indabas.

Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013

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