While Western consumers blithely send each other messages via Facebook and Twitter, the same applications are abused by authoritarian regimes to suppress and spy on their citizens. Sceptics claim that one day the internet will change the world into one huge police state. Balderdash, says Kees de Vey Mestdagh, IT lawyer with the University of Groningen. ‘The spread of knowledge and technical standards will lead to the internet increasing freedom across the globe. Censorship will disappear from the internet, like battery hens are from supermarkets.’
Many internet users in Western countries fail to acknowledge the fact that their freedom to roam the internet is by no means a matter of course. The vast majority of the over two billion internet connections worldwide are monitored and censored. An internet search in China will only yield results vetted by the government. This is enabled by technology delivered by western companies, including until very recently Google. Worried sceptics claim that government control is increasing, as do those fighting for freedom on the internet. Not too long ago, the Canadian company Blackberry buckled under pressure from the Indian government to provide access to its Indian customer base.
However, fear of governments and businesses dominating the internet is unnecessary, according to IT lawyer Kees de Vey Mestdagh, on the eve of a transatlantic conference held in Washington and Brussels on online freedom, organized by Groningen. ‘More and more businesses are realizing that acting like Blackberry in India is ultimately counterproductive. Large companies like Google and Microsoft make agreements to conduct their business responsibly. “Deliver technology so the Iranian government can spy on its citizens? We won’t do it”, more and more companies are saying, in part due to the controversy that arose after Nokia Siemens delivered technology to Iran. “Let our competitors screw up their image and market share doing so.”’
Many years have been spent in the United States on the introduction of the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), legislation forbidding American companies from delivering internet technology to repressive regimes which can be used for censorship or surveillance. De Vey Mestdagh: ‘This sort of legislation is definitely admirable. Yet governments and international organizations will have to acknowledge that the internet cannot be regulated from the top down. It just doesn’t have a central organization that laws and measures can be imposed upon. In the end the internet stakeholders – which includes governments, in addition to businesses, NGOs and private internet users – will together have to see to regulation.’
Both businesses and governments will encourage freedom on the internet because of their enlightened self-interest, De Vey Mestdagh expects. ‘Businesses see that they are putting their image and profits at risk if they curtail internet freedom. You could say that censorship will disappear from the internet, like battery hens are from supermarkets. Or, to put it another way, because companies and consumers are becoming increasingly well informed and wish to make responsible choices. Governments, however, will also acknowledge the importance of a free internet. Academic research indicates that internet censorship is severely harmful to a nation’s economic development. The further such insights spread, the freer the internet will become.’
In addition to the spread of knowledge, De Vey Mestdagh expects a great deal from the new technological standards. ‘Governments can now still force telecom companies to surrender data and eavesdrop on communication. We now are waiting for standard technology that will make this impossible. The necessary encryption techniques already exist. As soon as Western companies introduce these standards, software builders will follow their lead, simply to retain the Western market. In this way the free market will result in freedom on the internet. I am convinced that the human thirst for freedom is unquenchable – not even dictatorial and repressive regimes can suppress it.’
Dr Kees de Vey Mestdagh lectures in Law and IT at the University of Groningen and is the founder and head of the Law and IT department of the University of Groningen. This department offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes on the interface between technology and law that are unique in the Netherlands. De Vey Mestdagh publishes in the field of IT-related legal issues, internet governance and the normative applications of IT. The online conference he initiated will begin in Washington on 10 May, with a sequel on 14 May in Brussels. More information can be found on www.globalonlinefreedom.org
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