Freedom to Connect: Digital Liberties

By Tom Risen

As the scope of the Internet grows so do efforts by governments worldwide to control its content and use it for surveillance. The Freedom to Connect conference on Monday and Tuesday in Silver Spring, Md., assembled numerous speakers with solutions about how to secure civil liberties for our digital age.

Conference organizer David Isenberg summed up his view of Internet Freedom as he opened the conference and placed online civil liberties at the top of the agenda.
“Freedom to Connect is about freedom to decide what we can do on the Internet,” Isenberg said. “The Internet was designed deliberately to maximize choice. Freedom to connect is also about what we don’t want.”

The opening keynote by “the father of the Internet” Vint Cerf mixed optimism with a rundown of the challenges.
“We have it within our grasp to connect every person on the face of the earth to each other and to human knowledge,” said Cerf, dubbed the creator of the Web for his work with the Defense Department.

Google’s Internet Evangelist described technical threats such as devices being exploited by Trojans, viruses, and “drive by downloads” that contaminate a computer just by accessing a Web site. While acknowledging the threat of a national-scale assault on America’s computer infrastructure, Cerf said general terms such as cybercrime and cyberwar were intellectually harmful. He also called for more secure browsers and password protection as an alternative to overreacting.
“It leads people to imagine that everything that happens on the Net is a crime,” Cerf said.

Technical threats can be engineered around, but Cerf said institutional threats are worse.
Speakers throughout the conference also took jabs at controversial attempts at Internet governance such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the latter of which is being debated by the European Union.

Cerf cautioned against “chest-pounding mode” overconfidence about the Internet organizing power of the Arab Spring, and the fight to defeat the passage of SOPA and PIPA. Citing that 2012 is an election year, Cerf warned support for the bill in 2013 might be different.
“As soon as something like that becomes toxic you just run away from it,” Cerf said. “And that’s what happened. I don’t mean to minimize any effort about raising the alarm.”

Referring to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting coming up in December, Cerf reminded the audience the government-centric UN treaty body will decide whether and how it might regulate policy and technical standards for the global Internet in the future.

Demand Progress co-founder Aaron Swartz focused an entire keynote on the advocacy against the U.S. Internet governance effort to make a list of Web sites Americans could not visit. Swartz likewise called for vigilance, reminding the audience that SOPA was originally COICA in 2010, it received broad support from members of Congress, and the same bill could come back again with yet another name.

“It will happen again,” Swartz said. “New technology instead of bringing us greater freedom would have snuffed out rights we had always taken for granted.”

For true Internet Freedom, said users must be free from harm and fear while they are communicating on the Web, said Rebecca MacKinnon, pointing to the Arab Spring protesters and repressive nations. MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online listed examples of companies selling surveillance technology to nations in the Middle East such as Egypt, which is still using the surveillance infrastructure to spy on Egyptian citizens even though former president Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power.

Ian Schuler, left, with Rebecca MacKinnon. Photo credit Tom Risen

“Businesses around the world need to conduct human rights due diligence the way they conduct environmental due diligence,” MacKinnon said.

Referring to the NSA’s effort to collect and store data on American citizens, MacKinnon was the first of several conference speakers who questioned whether information being giving “up for the sake of convenience is handled responsibly.”
“Unless there is accountability about how these technologies are deployed around the world, we are not going to have Internet freedom,” MacKinnon said. “And the empowering potential of the Internet will diminish globally. And the commercial value will diminish.”

Asserting that government also encourages the spread of rights, the State Department’s Senior Manager of Internet Freedom Programs Ian Schuler said the State Department has committed $76 million in programming support for Internet freedom efforts over four years, with another $25 million in programming slated for 2012.

The ability to access rights online are determined by technology available to them, not just by government policy, so Schuler said that funding was intended to take advantage of the opportunity for citizens in repressive regimes to hack around censorship. Still, he recognized this is only part of the puzzle to secure safe and open access. One example he cited was how to identify “bad technologies” that should be singled out as surveillance tech without more benign computing uses.
“One man’s intrusion detection system is another man’s deep packet inspection,” Schuler said. “At the end of the day companies need to take responsibility and be aware of the folks they are selling to.”

Other speakers Cory Doctorow, an editor of BoingBoing, and Larry Lessig, founder of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.
The video chat with Doctorow had a poor signal, but Lessig referred to Doctorow’s article “The Problem With Nerd Politics,” as a calling for the tech-savvy audience to become digital rights activists in government, not just academia and the Web.

“The trouble is getting people who hate politics to devote a chunk of their cycle to doing something about it,” Lessig said.

This sentiment echoed Isenberg’s closing summary on the first day of the conference.
“The freedom to connect will not be given to us. We will have to continue to take it.”

For more information on the conference, link to the homepage for Freedom to Connect.

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