While the idea to have a “Magna Carta” for the Internet, protecting online freedoms such as freedom of expression, online assembly, or privacy, isn’t new, the question remains on how the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) could adopt binding documents – and whether it should at all. This article offers food for thought on how all IGF stakeholders could collaborate in an attempt to develop an international legal framework without expanding the scope of the mandate of the IGF. Instead, this nascent idea makes use of existing structures involving a range of stakeholders, including the Dynamic Coalitions, the Freedom Online Coalition and the Council of Europe.
Internet Governance & International Treaties
At the Opening Session of the last IGF Meeting in November 2015 in Joao Pessao, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye argued for an international treaty on human rights on the Internet. He said he saw a lack of legal certainty -substantive, jurisdictional, and procedural- that allows many around the world to perceive gaps in the application of human rights law online. He stressed that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression regardless of frontiers as a transboundary right. Kaye stated, “It is a challenge to traditional notions of Government control of territorial space, but it is a provision to be celebrated and put at the very center of Internet Governance.”
Joe Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, said that there was a need to improve existing legal instruments: “In international law, justiceable agreements are those that are included in conventions, legally binding international treaties. Thus, if Internet Governance is to be obtained, it must be treaty based.”
“Ultimately, nothing can substitute international agreement between governments acting on the advice and in the spirit of multistakeholder agreements”, Cannataci added.
Other participants, however, especially among civil society, voiced reservations that an international treaty would endanger a free Internet rather than provide for its protection, especially if such a treaty is ratified by governments that engage in mass surveillance, implement overreaching copyright laws, have poor privacy protection, limit access to an open Internet, or violate other human rights in their jurisdiction.
The multi-stakeholder model of internet governance at “worst may be a front for corporate self-regulation or government policy whitewashing”, warns for example Jeremy Malcolm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And indeed, countries such as China or Russia and many from the Middle East are openly in favor for more government control in Internet governance, lobbying for multilateral or intergovernmental arrangements, where states are the primary actors, administered by the ITU. In a Joint Communiqué dating from April 2016, the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China emphasized “the need to internationalize Internet governance and to enhance in this regard the role of International Telecommunication Union”.
So, with these debates as a backdrop, how could a human rights-centered and multi stakeholder-based international treaty on basic human rights on the Internet be formed and what would it look like?…
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2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant and PhD student at York University and researcher for Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, Lianrui Jia, is researching Post-WTO Internet policies in China – in particular, how the country is supporting and regulating its telecommunication and Internet industry. In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher she discusses the growing importance of China’s online companies both domestically and internationally, their ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party, and the prospects of U.S. internet companies’ re-entry into the Chinese market.
Your research focuses on media concentration in general and the political economy of Chinese internet companies in particular. Describe the rise of Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu in the last five years in terms of revenue, traffic and user numbers. How do these companies fare in comparison with their U.S. counterparts?
Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) are now the biggest three Chinese Internet companies. Due to vertical and horizontal integration these three have become behemoths in their respective areas (Baidu in search, Alibaba in e-commerce, and Tencent in social media and gaming). All three are public companies listed on NASDAQ, and they have generated some pretty staggering numbers. Revenue wise, BAT have achieved, on average, nearly three folds of revenue growth from 2011 to 2015, with Baidu’s revenue growing from 2,303 million to 10,247.6 million (357.8% increase), Alibaba from 3181.9 million to 12,293 million (280.5% increase), and Tencent from 4528 million to 102,863 million RMB (261% increase). Alibaba’s IPO was the world’s biggest at the time it went public in September 2014, valuing at 25 billion. On September 5th, 2016, Tencent became the most valuable company in Asia with a market capitalization of 255 billion, surpassing Alibaba’s 250 billion. Compared to their U.S counterparts Google, Amazon, and Facebook, BAT’s market capitalization is substantially smaller, although they have been slowly catching up amidst the fluctuations.
However, the most notable difference between these Chinese companies and their U.S. counterparts is that Chinese companies derive almost all of their revenue from the domestic market. In other words, Chinese internet companies are not as global as the U.S ones, in terms of revenue distribution, users, or product reach. For example, Google, in 2015, generated 54% of its revenue internationally, and nearly half of Facebook’s revenue (49.9%) comes from markets outside the U.S.
To increase revenue, Chinese companies have begun to expand globally. As CGCS Internet Policy Observatory affiliate Sarah Logan pointed out in a Chinese companies’ investments outside China have faced scrutiny from the public and regulators due to the companies’ close ties to the Communist Party. Do you think public companies such as Baidu and Tencent, whose executives have to answer to international shareholders, can and will change or rethink the nature of their relationship with the Chinese government in order to further grow internationally?
Sarah Logan’s piece is an excellent study into the conundrum that Chinese Internet companies have to face in the course of global expansion: the process is always embedded in and influenced by geopolitics. I do not think companies like Baidu and Tencent will change or rethink their relationship with the Chinese government, at least not in a drastic way. First of all, the home market is too important. Over 90 percent of revenue for Baidu and Tencent comes from mainland China. In their annual report in 2015, Alibaba did not report any international revenue because it was too insignificant. Their dominance in the domestic market hinges upon their experience in dealing with the government for well over a decade, and they will not risk or break it for the sole purpose of gaining a larger foothold in overseas market.
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//How can the internet act as a tool that promotes both democracy and authoritarianism? Elizabeth Stoycheff and Erik C. Nisbet explore this topic in their latest piece from The Conversation.
The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.
In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realize television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.
This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.
Not so fast.
In recent years, President Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. President Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.
This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.
The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.
On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.
However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.
And some do.
But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an…
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//In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha, deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) Ethiopia, discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.
Ethiopia has the second largest population of all African countries, yet its internet penetration rate is only 12 percent. Still, the country has arguably one of the most sophisticated internet regulatory regimes in the region. 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha is a cyber law and policy researcher, and deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia. In an interview with fellow participant and 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, Halefom discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.
With over 80 ethnic groups and more than 90 languages Ethiopia is the most diversified country on the African continent. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to internet content regulation in your country?
The internet is the greatest tool for advancing causes of democracy and civil liberties. However, it is not without challenges and problems. When it comes to content, the internet provides unlimited access to useful resources, while at the same time, it also serves as a platform for harmful or illegal content such as hate speech, sexually explicit content especially child pornography, defamatory statements, terrorist propaganda, extremist, radicalizing, and racist materials. While recognizing that the benefits of the internet far outweigh its negative…
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