The Internet: The Rights Debate Enters a New Domain

The Internet is a wild and unruly place: international coordinated efforts to prevent online crime are patchy at best, hopelessly insufficient at worst. Yet, regrettably, this is unlikely to change in the near future. Whilst these problems need to be addressed, it is imperative that freedom reign on the Internet, and this is proving to be a major international stumbling block. The main issue is this: how can the modern medium of free speech, free assembly, and free press be regulated without restricting or destroying its very purpose? This was the dilemma that faced delegates from across the world in Dubai in December 2012 during the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Unfortunately, the international community failed to reach an agreement in Dubai, and the deadlock that has developed doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.

Internet regulation is a truly international issue. The Web knows no national borders; threats originate from and attack all corners of the globe, often simultaneously; suspects in any cybercrime can be any one of the 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide. The modern press is full of world leaders crying out that cyber terrorism is the biggest threat to worldwide security, from Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to Google boss Eric Schmidt. However, the online issues that need to be tackled stretch beyond national security. The average age at which a child first sees pornographic images online is eleven; only 37 percent of music obtained by US consumers in 2009 was paid for and legal; 187 million people’s identities and private information were stolen online in 2011. To tackle the (evidently substantial) problem of Internet regulation, therefore, a global solution is required, and that would require an agreed global conception of individual rights and freedoms. Such a prospect is highly implausible.

In the physical world, individual countries are able to strike their own balance between protecting freedom and maintaining law and order. The same two concerns must be addressed in any attempt at Internet regulation: there clearly exist issues with the governance of cyberspace (or the lack of it), especially with regards to cyber-terrorism, piracy, and age controls, among other issues, but at the same time, it is imperative that individual freedoms must be respected online. However, this is easier said than done: it seems impossible to suggest that the freedom-treasuring West and some more authoritarian societies of both the Middle and Far East can share a forum governed by the same rules. To strike this balance online will be as difficult as it would be to provide worldwide governance, law, and order in the physical world. 

Nevertheless, some progress is possible, just as it is required. In the same way that some overriding international principles can be universally agreed upon in terms of physical law and order with the International Criminal Court and the UN, a similar system is most likely to evolve with regards to policing the internet. 

There are currently two broad camps of opinion which that emerged at the WCIT in Dubai: firstly, broadly speaking “The West”, spearheaded by the US; and “The Rest”, fronted by Russia and China. (Sound familiar? It is with some accuracy that The Economist refers to the situation as “A Digital Cold War”). The West comprises those who pretty much wish to maintain the status quo — minimal regulation and maximum freedom. Meanwhile, Russia, China and others have favored a system whereby individual countries have more power to control content more strictly in their realms of jurisdiction.

The West argues that giving individual states, or even some sort of global “Internet police”, power to control what sites can be accessed by whom and what users can post, to control who citizens are, or are not, allowed to converse with, or to track users’ Internet history are powers that could be abused to restrict freedom of speech. However, it is difficult to see how Internet crime, piracy, underage viewing of restricted content or cyber terrorism can be combatted in any way whatsoever without any of these powers, a case argued by “The Rest” in Dubai. In some cases, western nations’ position could be considered somewhat hypocritical: the UK Home Office has attempted, but so far failed, to pass a counter-terrorism bill allowing access to suspects’ Internet history (dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter”); meanwhile, the debate and outrage in the US centered on how the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) infringed upon civil liberties.

Nevertheless, the West has a point. The founding principle of the Internet is that of a free forum to share information that is available to all, with everybody able to take from and add to an open and global resource. The ability for individual nations to restrict access to that resource renders it redundant in its primary goals as a global library or as a medium of free conversation and exchange. 

The fact remains that the current lack of universal regulation is a large enough problem that something needs to be done. However without sufficient compromise from the two opposing sides of the debate, then nothing will be done. It is impossible to know what exact form the first, and long-awaited, Internet charter will take, but one thing is for sure: the US and other Western nations are highly unlikely to back down on their commitment to a free, open Internet for all.  For the foreseeable future at least, the status quo seems pretty permanent. Piracy, pornography and professional hackers, yes, but at least we are still free to Google something, to blog, surf, download, or Tweet. In some places at least.