Human Rights 25 October 2013

Protect the Open Internet, Protect Your Freedom

Nicolas Seidler
By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor
Brian N. LevineGuest Author

Although the Internet’s original architects likely did not intentionally conceive the Internet as a tool to advance human rights, the principles they built into its design support basic participatory ideals.

In many ways, the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for promoting the potential of a more open and inclusive society. In some parts of the world, the Internet has encouraged lively participatory social development, promoted access to and sharing of information and knowledge, fostered online cultural diversity and enabled a vast array of new services based on the Internet, including e-learning, e-health, and e-government.

When the Internet is unrestricted and widely available, it enables users to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers, in ways that were not possible before. The network has shown its potential to become a key enabler for realizing the ideal of freedom of expression and information, set out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) more than 60 years ago.

From the beginning, the Internet’s creators understood that – in the absence of open, global and interoperable standards – we would likely have a set of fragmented and incompatible networks, isolated and unable to communicate among each other. The Internet’s global nature is sustained by what we call Open Standards: communication protocols, data exchange formats and interface that allow different computers and networks to exchange information. They are the language of the Internet, empowering users to communicate with one another through the network. Like other languages, Internet standards should not be owned, but be freely used by anybody; anyone should be able to contribute to their evolution (read about why The Internet Didn’t Happen by Accident).

All of these manifestations of “openness” have to be considered as interdependent andmutually reinforcing in a virtuous circle. Technical, economic, societal and politicaldimensions of the Internet are closely intertwined and interrelated.

In line with this ideal, the Mission Statement of the Internet Engineering Task Force – the community which is the home of this technical development – highlights the fundamental value of an open model by stating: “We embrace technical concepts such as decentralized control, edge-user empowerment and sharing of resources, because those concepts resonate with the core values of the IETF community. These concepts have little to do with the technology that’s possible, and much to do with the technology that we choose to create.”

Although these words were written to describe the technical context, today they accurately reflect the aspirations of many Internet users for the societal communities that they choose to create.

Of course, while these features without any doubt have a positive impact, there are also downsides to Internet openness; the same technology that is used to foster free expression can also be used to repress it when it is considered inconvenient or dangerous to the status quo. As we witnessed with recent surveillance events, it can also be used in ways that undermine users’ privacy expectations.

It is therefore our responsibility to protect our Internet and to protect our freedoms by making sure the Internet remains open and fosters vibrant and inclusive societies.

The Internet Society is currently engaging on this issue and others in cooperation with other stakeholders at the Internet Governance Forum 2013.

Read more:

The Value of Openness for a Sustainable Internet by InternetSociety

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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