The future of the Internet


I am in Istanbul, Turkey to attend the 9th Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This is an initiative of the United Nations General Assembly to bring together stakeholders to discuss the future of the Internet.

On top of the agenda is how governments should treat the net. The majority view still is what is referred to as the “multi-stakeholderism approach”, which believes that as the Internet is the technological realization of a free market place of ideas, it should be allowed to flourish with minimal governmental interference. On the other end of the spectrum is the view that the Internet should be subject to the full exercise of state sovereignty and jurisdiction exemplified perhaps by China’s decision to build the counterpart of its great wall on the Internet.

But beyond the debate on how much control government should exercise over the net, the conference also deals with a host of other controversial topics. I would think that given the archipelagic nature of the Philippines and the fact that we have one of the slowest and most expensive Internet service in the world — a topic that should have prompted our government to at least send an official delegate to the forum would be the issue of access to the Internet. But reflective of the lack of political will and/ or lack of appreciation that access to the internet is fast developing into a human right, the Philippines did not bother to send anyone, even a third secretary from our embassy in Ankara, to the forum. A fellow Filipino civil society delegate, Liza Garcia of Gender and ICT, cynically observed that if the international community put a price tag on the Internet, our government would most definitely have sent an official delegate to the forum.

In any case, it is strange that the Philippines, as the country that has most recently implemented a draconian law that infringes on freedom of expression on the net through the Cybercrimes Prevention Act, would choose to ignore the UN-sponsored forum on the future of the Internet.

Other interesting topics for discussion include: content creation, dissemination and use, the Internet as an engine for growth, enhancing digital security, human rights and other emerging issues.

I have thus far attended two interesting panels. The first is on the future of the data privacy in a post-Snowden world. The other is on human rights principles and the Internet.

Apparently, the concern today arising from the Snowden incident is the privacy of data, which governments have been accessing. This is why most governments insist on “in-country data storage”, referred in techie language as “localization”, which many Internet servers object to as being uneconomical and violate their clients’ rights to privacy. Unfortunately, a theme that arose from the panel discussion is that it is start-up companies that have the balls to stand up to government in resisting localization. The big guys, apparently driven by potential loss of revenues, have been more than happy to comply with both localization and requests for data. All that Big Brother has to do is to ask.

Closer to my interest are human rights principles, which have been codified into the Charter of Human Rights for the Internet. While this remains lex ferenda, meaning this is still aspirational; the panel observed that countries have been moving, albeit slowly, to enact enabling legislation to transform the Charter into lex lata, or what the law is. New Zealand and Brazil are two such countries. I do recall that Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has a pending bill, the Magna Carta for the Internet, which I hope will be enacted into law soon so that the Philippines can help in making the aspirational Charter into law. Some of the rights included in the Charter include the right to access and the right against government surveillance without due process of law. Thank goodness that while we lost in our challenge against cyber libel and cybersex in the Cyberprevention Act, we at least succeeded in nullifying real time data gathering without a court warrant and the take-down clause which would have enabled the Justice Secretary to act as investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner in taking down Internet sites.

Today, my hosts, Freedom House and the American Bar Association, have arranged a series of bilateral meetings with donors and tech companies. In a few minutes there will be a bilateral meeting with the European Commission, followed by bilateral meetings with the State Department, the Director for Advocacy of Human Rights Watch, and meetings with companies such as Twitter and Facebook. At issue with the techie companies is the procedure by which they comply with government requests to take down materials. Early in our pre-conference planning, we agreed that we would attempt to persuade these companies to adapt an administrative procedure by which civil society and other interested parties may challenge any such request to take down content. Prima facie, these requests constitute prior restraint and infringe on freedom of expression.

It’s my first time to attend the IGF. I do concede that three days can make a world of a difference. I started on Day 1 when I was still pessimistic that a forum where nothing is adopted might be a waste of time. Today, and because I have been teaching international law for 15 years, I realize that a forum such as this facilitates the formation of customary norms. This is because civil society and other stakeholders are allowed to persuade governments to adopt uniform state practice on the basis that these practices have become law.

It’s not such a waste of time after all.

My profuse thanks to the American Bar Association for sponsoring me to this event, and to Freedom House for including me in their delegation. This means I win the prize for social media, right?

This post first appeared in http://manilastandardtoday.com/2014/09/04/the-future-of-the-internet/

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