Internet freedom activists mourn death of Aaron Swartz

The death of Aaron Swartz on January 11th is mourned as a terrible loss for close family members and friends. Additionally, it is labeled a “setback” for Internet freedom and responsible governance worldwide.

Swartz, at age fourteen, demonstrated the technological ingenuity that Silicon Valley coveted most. His resume and record of accomplishments screamed entrepreneurial success. According to Christopher Saghoian, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, the brilliant, self-taught engineer “could have made a fortune as a start-up wizard or venture capitalist.”

It therefore begs the question, what motivated Swartz to spend precious years of his entrepreneurial life as a Fellow at Harvard University’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption? And as a board member of Change Congress (now the United Republic organization)—a good government nonprofit promoting accountability, according to the activist and engineer.

Acknowledged—Swartz’s personal crusade for information freedom left him veering off, at points, the legal advocacy pathways. The Internet prodigy made his debut as a core contributor to the specification for RSS 1.0. He later founded his own company, Infogami, which merged successfully with the popular social news and entertainment website, Reddit.com. Swartz, however, “couldn’t stand office life” and in 2007, the political activist and entrepreneur reassumed his fiery, innate passion for harnessing (and securing) the Open Internet to serve the global citizen’s informational needs. In late-2010, Swartz hashed out a quick-fix solution to safeguarding the Internet from bureaucratic censorship, by using a software mechanism he deemed, “helpful and hopefully uncontroversial.” His tutorials routinely concluded with solicitations about pooling Internet expertise, underscoring a persistent awareness that the free Internet movement existed largely beyond himself.

To the Internet evangelist’s discredit and misfortune, Swartz’s public release of millions of copyrighted documents owned by the U.S. Judiciary (PACER) and the subscription-based journal archive, JSTOR were aggressively prosecuted at the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, a singular, focused ideal remained at the heart of Swartz’s short, impassioned career. It was the simple, yet distinctive goal of making information via the Internet free and wholly accessible to all. Upon hearing of his death, Internet freedom activists pledged to carry forward with Swartz’s aspirations for social justice. One of them, Jan Zuppinger, was inspired to write the following of the legacy Swartz left behind. “Let his life be an inspiration to us all to keep fighting, to keep building a better world, where free expression and open standards become the norm for everyone.”

Follow-up to our December 6th event

Our event yesterday was a thorough success — thanks to everyone who attended, everyone who participated and presented, and to everyone who made it possible.

Our policy brief, “Can Trade Policies Set Information Free? Trade Agreements, Internet Governance, and Internet Freedom” is now available online at our website.

Dr. Aaronson’s slides are embedded on our web page.

We will post links to media coverage as they become available.

Syria, the Internet, and Trade

On Thursday, the people of Syria were cut off from the Internet — almost certainly by the government. Contrary to popular wisdom that the Internet merely detours around censorship, it is possible to remove a whole country from the Internet when cable traffic into that country is concentrated in one or a few key chokepoints. The Internet is only able to circumvent such damage when there are a multitude of pathways — which is the point of using TCP/IP in the first place.

To prevent this sort of outage from happening, the US and other democratic countries can use trade policy to encourage opening of Internet markets — that is, to ensure that there are multiple pathways into each country, so that no easy chokepoint exists. Guaranteeing economic competition for Internet infrastructure helps to ensure that governments do not control that infrastructure.

One proposal that could help is the One Global Internet Act, from U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren. The act would create specific responsibility in the U.S. government for identifying and addressing Internet censorship, and imposing trade and other economic sanctions on countries found to be violators.  But the proposal is limited in scope to what the U.S. can do by itself, and does not discuss international regulation of the Internet.

So far, most trade-based regulation of the Internet has happened in bilateral or regional agreements. The problem the industrialized democracies face is that countries which are most likely to be cut-off from the Internet are not likely trading partners — see the map from the previous link. Of the countries in the TransPacific Partnership talks, only Brunei is at risk for cut-off. Vietnam, one of the most censorious countries in the talks, is only at low risk for complete disconnection. While the Internet was important to the beginnings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, it’s not likely that U.S. will ink a free trade agreement with new government any time soon — which means there is little leverage to open the Internet market. Because of the political costs of negotiating with regimes seen as tyrannic or otherwise objectionable, bilateral and limited trade agreements simply won’t cover many of the countries where Internet freedom might do the most good.

The best response is instead a broadly multilateral approach, encompassing as many countries as possible. This could be pursued through the WTO, which covers 158 countries including many authoritarian regimes. In fact, in 2011 the US government sent a letter to the Chinese government suggesting the latter’s Internet censorship was a violation of WTO rules, and asking for an explanation as to when and by whom decisions to block foreign websites are made. Although China is required to respond under the rules, the US has not received a formal reply. U.S. authorities have yet to decide whether to make a formal complaint to the WTO. On the other hand,  WTO members have been resistant to expanding the organizations’ mandate to include information flows. Also in 2011, several nations refused a US and EU proposal that WTO members agree not to block Internet service nor impede the free flow of data.

All of which suggests that existing institutions may not be enough to secure global access to the Internet. Organizations like the WTO or ITU could be enhanced to address this vital issue, or concerned nations might create a separate international institution to guarantee Internet freedom. In any case, trade has an important role to play, and online trade will be affected by any decision to attack censorship.

 

Event Announcement: Can Trade Policies and Agreements Promote Internet Freedom?

We are pleased to announce our final agenda for the December 6th event, “Can Trade Policies and Agreements Promote Internet Freedom?” The conference is free, and registration is now open at go.gwu.edu/tradeandinternet.

The event includes the following panels:

European, U.S. and Canadian Views on the Free Flow of Information: Speakers in this session will examine how the three trade giants use trade policy to advance cross border information flows. They will also give their views as to the possible effects of these provisions on Internet openness.

Moderator: Brian Wingfield – Bloomberg/Businessweek
Panelists: MEP Marietje Schaake – European Council on Foreign Relations
Eric Miller – Embassy of Canada in the United States
Danny Weitzner – MIT

Can Policymakers Find Greater Coherence between Privacy, IPR, and Internet Freedom?
Speakers in this session will discuss privacy and IPR provisions in trade agreements how such provisions may support and/or at times reduce Internet openness.

Moderator: Mark McCarthy – SIIA
Panelists: Hillary Brill – eBay
Corynne McSherry – Electronic Frontier Foundation
Cynthia Wong – Human Rights Watch
Lara Ballard – U.S. Department of State

New Ideas and Strategies to Bolster Internet Freedom and Online Trade: Speakers will address what firms, activists, and governments can do to advance the One Global Internet.

Moderator: Daniel O’Connor – CCIA
Panelists: Brian Bieron – eBay
Susan Morgan – Global Network Initiative
Matthew Perault – Facebook
John Dye – U.S. Department of State
Ben Scott – New America and Stiftung Neue Verantwortung

Andrew McLaughlin of betaworks will deliver the luncheon keynote address on The Future of Internet Freedom.

In addition, there will be a special talk on The Future of Internet Freedom: A Human Rights Perspective, by Lee Hibbard of The Council of Europe.

Click here for the full agenda in PDF.

This event is made possible with support from the Institute for International Economic Policy at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the GW Center for International Business Education and Research, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the John and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Computer Communications Industry Association, the Software & Information Industry Association, and the National War College.

The ITU and Internet Governance

You may have seen Google’s “Take Action” page, which encourages netizens to voice their support for a “free and open Internet”. A number of organizations are offering similar petitions, and there is even a dedicated website with the domain, ProtectInternetFreedom.org. A good overview of the controversy by Ambassador David Gross and Ethan Lucarelli is available at WhosWhoLegal.

What lacks from these sites is the deeper context of the controversy: the history of the Internet. My paper on the early history of the Internet (paywalled, alas)* describes briefly how an organization now part of the ITU, the CCITT, tried in the 1970s to develop global computer networking standards. (Sorry – lots of acronyms here.) The standard they produced was called X.25, and was designed in response to a fear that IBM’s proprietary protocol, SNA, would dominate computer networking. TCP/IP was proposed by the US as a possible alternative standard, but rejected by the CCITT. Some networks were built using X.25, but many of these also allowed TCP/IP to run on top of X.25. Of these three protocols, X.25 (and SNA) are ancient history (by Internet standards) because pretty much everyone started using TCP/IP in the 1990s. Another way to look at this is to say that TCP/IP, X.25, and SNA competed against one another, and TCP/IP won because Internet users preferred it to the others.

To make sense of the previous paragraph, it may help to understand the various roles involved. At the top of the pyramid are users — namely you, the reader whose computer is connected to this page, but also WordPress, whose servers connect to the network as well. Even a company as massive as Google is technically a user of the Internet, because it does not own the network itself. A step beneath the users is an Internet service provider — a company or perhaps a government-owned network, which actually owns the connection to your house or workplace. Depending on your provider, that company may in turn connect to one of the corporations comprising the Internet backbone, or it might be one of those corporations. When you see an ad on a Google page, Google gets that revenue, but the provider and the backbone company do not; their revenue comes from what users pay for use of the network — your monthly bill for service. The way Internet service is priced (at least in the U.S.) assumes all data packets are the same, in part because TCP/IP treats all data the same, and this makes it relatively cheap.

All this to say: TCP/IP privileges network users over network owners. This fact was a deliberate decision built into the protocol from very early on in its development, and while the decision was made for sound technical reasons, it also has political consequences for the relationship between network user and owner. Especially in countries where the network is heavily regulated or government-owned, these consequences shift the balance between citizen and regime. This is the power of the Internet, and the value of a ‘free and open’ Internet. This is also what makes it possible for companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to thrive on the Internet as users. The technical decision to privilege users is the same feature underlying the net neutrality debate: network owners in the U.S. sought the ability to identify packets which are more valuable to users (advertisements, Facebook, Netflix streaming), and charge them more for those data. Users won that debate in 2011, when the FCC published rules prohibiting service providers from discriminating against lawful content.

The problem that TCP/IP creates for the ITU is that it profoundly disadvantages the telecommunications corporations (some private companies, some government-run), which make up the ITU’s membership. Companies like Verizon can be members of the ITU-T — as the CCITT is now called — but cannot vote on ITU business. Only governments can vote. The catch is that around 2/3rds of member countries have either a private or public monopoly on telecommunications — at least as of 2002, according to the ITU (PDF — see Figure 1), as of 2002 approximately 2/3rds. This fraction is somewhat lower now, but having a powerful national telecom monopoly creates a strong incentive for governments to act to reshape the Internet in favor of network owners. The U.S. — which hosts around 43% of the world’s top million websites, despite having only 10% of Internet users — gets a lot of traffic from other countries, and that translates to some degree into revenue flowing to the U.S., but also ideas, culture, and other information flowing out of the U.S. into these countries. Some governments and telecoms wish to capture a portion of that revenue, or to stem the influx of content, or both — and the ITU provides a venue for that debate.

So the ITU meeting is an opportunity to have the net neutrality debate all over again, only this time on the world stage, with odds against users. Because of the predominance of network-user corporations in the U.S., it likely has the strongest domestic lobby in favor of Internet users — yet even the net neutrality decision was not an easy win. We see evidence of this lobby’s influence in our work on free trade, where the U.S. has pushed for inclusion of ‘openness’ provisions for data flows into trade partners. Some trade partners have pushed back on these provisions, citing the interests of their citizens. So while the U.S. government may advocate for an Internet friendly to users, it is widely seen as advocating for the interests of particular U.S. users. It is not clear how this will play out in the ITU, where the U.S.’s best arguments for Internet freedom may be undercut by the government’s obvious interest in Internet commerce. In any case, most governments will be much more influenced by the interests of their telecoms.

To understand the debate in and around the ITU, it is important to remember that the telecoms’ vision of the Internet is very different from what users currently enjoy — and, in fact, that vision was tried in the 1970s and 1980s, but did not survive competition from TCP/IP and the Internet as it is. The irony is that as recent as ten years ago, the ITU could have likely implemented new regulations to revert the Internet to owner control — companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon weren’t strong enough to mount any challenge. But in the last ten years the economic case presented by network-user companies, as well as the moral case from the Arab Spring, uprisings in Burma, and the color revolutions, have shown the world the power and potential of a user-centered Internet. This makes it more difficult — but not impossible — for the ITU to act for the network owners’ interests, but it also makes any such decision more devastating.
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*a free but rough version, which covers most of this history and the relevant debates, is available on my website (PDF).

What is Internet Freedom and What are World Powers doing to Facilitate It?

The US, the EU, and individual EU member states are trying to figure out how to help activists in repressive states access the Internet and freely express their opinions online. Policymakers are finding that although the Internet is global, it is not easy for officials or activists in one nation to advance internet freedom within another nation.

First, all governments block some information–for moral, ethical, privacy, cyber security or national security reasons. No state can tell another state where it is appropriate to draw the line. Secondly, to prevent governments from violating their citizens rights or monitoring their activities, countries may want to limit or ban trade in internet technologies. But these actions may prevent some governments from monitoring their citizens may undermine the ability of activists to communicate and collaborate online. Thirdly, policymakers are finding that their strategies have unforeseen spillovers or contradictions. As example, neither the U.S. nor the EU guarantees access to information on the Internet for its citizens. Only France, Finland and Costa Rica have made online access a basic human right, and Greece and Estonia stipulate that the state has responsibility to provide such access.

Despite these difficulties, states are devising policies and funding innovative projects to promote internet freedom. Sweden, the Netherlands, the EU, and the US are among the most active proponents of Internet freedom. The Swedish government has made internet freedom a key element of its foreign policy. It organized an event in February at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to “bring broader awareness of the social and economic advantages of an open internet.” Secretary of State Clinton and senior officials in the Department of State have given numerous speeches arguing that Internet freedom requires multiple policy responses. Thus, the U.S. government helped establish the Global Network Initiative, a multisectoral partnership among business, human rights groups, academics, and other interested parties. The Initiative has developed principles to guide the information technology industry on how to respect, protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy, when faced with government demands for censorship and disclosure of users’ personal information.

Policymakers are throwing money at the problem. The EU Parliament established a 125 million Euro fund to train and empower bloggers, online journalists and human rights defenders to circumvent censorship and evade cyber attacks. The U.S. has given $70 million in grants funding to help citizens of repressive regimes use the Internet. These grants fund technology that helps these individuals communicate securely and freely. The US has also funded NGOs that train individuals in tools to avoid circumvention. The Department of State has split the money into 3 areas: education and training; anonymization to mask user’s identies and circumvention technology. Some individuals, however, assert that these technologies are problematic and easily hacked.

The US Government also created the Internet Freedom Fellows, which brings human rights activists to Geneva, Washington and Sillicon Valley to meet with fellow activists, U.S. and international government leaders and members of civil society and the private sector working on technology and human rights issues.

Policymakers have also begun to use trade policy to sanction bad actors or limit access to goods or services that government officials use to spy on or monitor their citizens’ activities online. For example, the US strictly controls which nations can buy internet filtering tools or information suppression technologies. The US bans the sale of such items to countries such as Syria. However, sanctioning governments that repress their citizens does not necessarily help activists in such countries. The Washington Post reported that although these sanctions are supposed to make it harder for Syrian officials to spy on dissidents, they also make it harder for activists in Syria to communicate online. So far, the US and other nations have not devised a clear approach to using trade incentives or disincentives. The US Government also said although it has a wide range of sanctions in place for Cuba, Iran, and Syria, it will grant licenses to companies that export instant messaging and other personal Internet services to Iran, Sudan and Cuba. The US also eliminated export restrictions on “mass-market electronic products with encryption functions such as laptops and cellphones. Meanwhile, although the EU has banned much trade with Syria and Iran, some European governments such as France are major investors in companies that export surveillance and communications equipment.

The U.S. and the EU are also considering using trade policy to challenge censorship (the policy of restricting access to information online) as a barrier to trade. The U.S. now seems to agree that restrictions on the free flow of information have serious economic consequences and are a de facto trade barrier (this argument was first put forward by Google). In late 2011, the U.S. sent a letter to the Chinese government asking it to explain its Internet policies. Under paragraph 4 of Article II of the GATS, the US asked China to explain why some foreign sites were inaccessible in China, who decides when and if a foreign website should be blocked? The US also asked if service suppliers can appeal a decision to block access to their website. The U.S. Trade Representative is studying whether it could challenge Chinese Internet restrictions as a violation of WTO rules. However, the U.S. is unlikely to take this route, as policymakers would not want to create precedents that could limit the U.S. or its allies’ ability to restrict access to the Internet for national security reasons. Moreover, although European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes told Chinese officials in 2010 that China’s internet censorship qualifies as a trade barrier, the EU has never acted to challenge it at the WTO.

Finally, the US wants to include language in its Free Trade agreements to guarantee the free flow of information among states and online actors. In a new trade agreement under negotiation, The Transpacific Partnership(TPP), the US has proposed language to create binding provisions to prevent countries from blocking cross-border data transfers and enacting laws that require companies to locate data servers in a particular country as a condition of doing business there or handling citizens’ private data. Some activists argue that although these free flow provisions could support an open Internet and Internet freedom, they are contradicted by the copyright provisions in the TPP, which punish individuals and internet service providers for sharing copyrighted information online.

Press from our September 22nd event on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

In September 22nd, we hosted a panel discussion, “Can Trade Agreements Facilitate the Free Flow of Information: The Trans-Pacific Partnership as a Case Study”, which brought representatives from the public, private, and nonprofit sector together to talk about the language in the TPP that would affect members regulation of the Internet. The event offered a fruitful discussion of this topic, and we are pleased that a number of journalists were able to attend. Here are some of the articles reporting on the event:

Financial Times : Intellectual Property: A new world of royalties (free registration required):

It is hard to assess progress in the TPP talks: apart from occasional leaked copies, the negotiating documents are largely kept secret. But there is no doubt that IP, and particularly copyright, is controversial.

The US administration insists that it is only trying to extend principles that already exist in American law, trading off incentives for producers with access for users. “It is important to make clear that we are looking for a balanced copyright ecosystem,” a US official says.

Reuters (Chicago Tribune) : U.S. seeks Internet data flow safeguards in Asia-Pacific trade pact

The United States is asking countries for strong rules to protect the free flow of data, ranging from video clips to back-room office operations, in talks on a Asia-Pacific free trade agreement, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The U.S. proposal is “very aggressive in terms of asking for binding rules that allow data to move” across borders over the Internet, Jonathan McHale, deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for telecommunications and electronic commerce policy, said during a panel discussion.

Inside U.S. Trade USTR Official: U.S. Still Faces Big Challenges On TPP Data Flow Proposal (paywall)

An official in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week said U.S. negotiators are still facing a “big challenge” as they try to reach a compromise with Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) partners who seek the necessary amount of policy space under an aggressive U.S. proposal on the free flow of data across borders.