Global Partners is currently evaluating a media project in China. This piece is based on research during a trip to Beijing in July 2012. Weibo, ‚Äėthe Twitter of China‚Äô, is a popular three year old. Already bigger than Twitter it has 320 million users with big plans to take on the global micro-blogging market. Its success is all the more impressive because it has taken root in rather hostile circumstances. The majority of social media and sharing platforms ‚Äď Facebook, Twitter and YouTube included ‚Äď are banned in China, and the Arab Spring and Chinese pro-democracy protests at the beginning of 2011 triggered a tightening of government control over the media and internet. While freedom of expression is enshrined in China‚Äôs constitution, it is not substantiated in any law. Internet companies, who operate there under a system of self-discipline, struggle to identify where the legal and policy boundaries lie to avoid government penalty ‚Äď a challenge faced by traditional Chinese media for decades. Attempts by Sina, Weibo‚Äôs parent company, to placate the government come at the expense of limiting anonymous expression in China. Sina has recently introduced an ‚Äėinnovative‚Äô points deduction scheme which penalises users for violating content policy. One way that users can redeem lost points is through real-name registration, which forces users to reveal their true identities and has been compulsory in China since March this year. The company claims that their users‚Äô rights are a priority, though, and that rather than taking down or censoring content, they are increasingly accepting liability in defamation and copyright cases on behalf of users. While this might happen in only a minority of cases, it signifies that Chinese internet companies like Sina are finding ways to play by the State‚Äôs rules and protect their users‚Äô rights, at the same time. To have survived three years is a remarkable achievement for a social media platform in China. But citizens are starting to use Weibo to inform and to criticise, playing out the Chinese government‚Äôs worst fear. Take the recent Beijing floods that killed 77 plus people. It was Weibo that made public the deaths and subsequent government cover-up of the number of deaths. Citizens used the platform to voice their concerns about Beijing‚Äôs infrastructure and the poor emergency response to the disaster. So I asked why the State isn‚Äôt clamping down on Weibo, like those before it. The answer was: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs too late. China has social media now. It‚Äôs too strong.‚ÄĚ
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A diverse group of civil society groups from across sub-Saharan Africa today launched a statement affirming the internet‚Äôs central role as a space to enable democratisation and promote human rights. The statement calls on a wide range of stakeholders to strengthen their support for human rights online, to extend initiatives to improve access to information, and to facilitate effective civil society participation in all governance processes addressing internet-related issues. The civil society groups from the human rights, media and ICT sectors met at the end of July in Nairobi, Kenya at a two day event organised by Global Partners & Associates, the Association for Progressive Communications, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Ford Foundation East Africa. The explosion of digital communication technologies is arguably the most significant phenomenon of the last century, amplifying human potential across all dimensions.¬† As such, the politically and economically powerful are increasingly seeking to consolidate and further their power over and within this new medium. The internet‚Äôs potential for democracy could be lost if inappropriate forms of regulation and control are introduced, restricting openness and creativity. In this complex environment who is there to defend the public interest? Until recently this task has fallen with the engineers responsible for developing the internet, and a small number of ‚Äúearly adopters‚ÄĚ within civil society. However, a number of high profile threats to internet freedom have emerged over the last couple of years. These include cuts to internet access during the Arab Spring, threats of very restrictive copyright and surveillance legislation in the United States, and demands for a new internet governance regime that give governments greater control. These threats to internet freedom have gradually brought a wider range of human rights groups to the table. This event and the statement are testimony to this, and hopefully signify the start of a larger, stronger and more coordinated civil society voice for the internet. Read the statement here
Over dinner in a hot and humid Seoul I sat next to the South Korean Minister for North Korea ‚Äď the man responsible for North Korean refugees living in the south. Born in Pyongyang, where his family still live, he has had had no contact with them in sixty years. And the deep wound caused by partition came up in every conversation with South Koreans, haunted by loss, separation and sadness at the fate of those in the North. Seoul was the venue for the 12th Informal ASEM Seminar on Human Rights, focusing on ‚ÄúHuman Rights and Information and Communication Technology‚ÄĚ, organised by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg Institute, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and a Singapore based think tank, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF). It was a curiously lopsided event. Discussions covered some of the key issues for freedom of expression, privacy and the digital divide. But whereas the European participants included independent and critical voices, the Asian delegations were mainly government representatives, (although with some notable exceptions). So, a working group on online freedom of expression had to listen solemnly to the delegate from Vietnam‚Äôs human rights ministry stating his country had no internet censorship, except when dealing with serious crimes like murder or rape. The politeness and respect characteristic of the region meant most participants did not know how to respond. Despite these cultural differences, most recognised the implications of a fast-changing digital environment for all governments ‚Äď even those resisting democracy and human rights. Those in power face a population increasingly empowered by technology, free to exchange information and challenge traditional structures and hierarchies. As the fight to keep the internet free unrolls on multiple fronts ‚Äď technical, market, legal and normative - the outcome remains in the balance. But one way or another, governments need to work out what it means and, critically, how to respond.
We are working with project partners in India and Sri Lanka to strengthen freedom of expression on the Internet in South East Asia. This project is one of the first to apply the recent recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression. It aims to build on these, creating country specific recommendations and civil society outreach initiatives in the region.
Global Partners is attending the sixth annual Internet Governance Forum (September 27-30, 2011) in Nairobi, Kenya. The Internet Governance Forum developed out of the World Summit on the Information Society as a global, multi-stakeholder forum for developing bottom up approaches to Internet Governance challenges. We are co-organising workshops on ‚ÄúDevelopment, Empowerment and Access to the Internet‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúExporting the Internet: Human Rights and Technology‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúHuman rights: a unifying approach for development, freedom, access and diversity?‚ÄĚ, and ‚ÄúCopyright and Human Rights in Internet Governance‚ÄĚ. We are also speaking on a panel entitled: ‚ÄúInternet Governance Principles: initiatives toward the improvement of a global Internet Governance‚ÄĚ.
The internet is changing the world. Like the printing press before it, the internet is transforming the way humans interact and instigating change, which is spreading through all elements of life. It brings with it a huge range of challenges and opportunities, not least the challenge of governing in a world which is fast changing, decentralised and trans-boundary. The issue of governance was on the agenda at the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005. The model adopted was the Internet Governance Forum ‚Äď an annual open forum where all stakeholder groups (governments, businesses, civil society and the technical community) come together to discuss internet governance issues. The IGF does not make decisions or recommendations but allows multi- stakeholder, bottom-up policy to be made and shapes norms through an inclusive global dialogue. The sixth Forum was held in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of September, but the future of the IGF is uncertain. Various countries have tired of the dialogue approach and calls for new internet policy bodies abound. Many of these come from developing countries concerned that the ‚Äėinstitutional gap‚Äô is being filled by actors who are economically or politically powerful. These include the OECD, the Council of Europe, and global companies, many of whom are western-based. In recent months, IBSA (an initiative by India, Brazil and South Africa) has called for a new global body, and China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have jointly suggested ‚Äėan international code of conduct for the information society‚Äô. These challenges to the multi-stakeholder model are worrying. Top-down policy making is not well-suited to the internet, which is a fast-changing network of networks ‚Äď some of which are publicly owned, the majority private. Furthermore, the inclusion of stakeholders other than governments is essential to prevent heavy regulation and protect openness, inclusivity and consideration of the broader public interest. At the same time, some concerns about the IGF are genuine, and if it does not contribute effectively to governing the internet, it will be sidelined. As we look towards the 2012 IGF in Azerbaijan, the challenge is daunting, but clear: the Forum must realign itself to be effective in the changing world of internet governance. A working group on improving the IGF is investigating whether it might make non-binding recommendations. This would be a positive move, enabling it to more directly influence decisions in other forums. Similarly, in Nairobi we heard growing calls for the IGF to develop a set of multi-stakeholder principles for internet governance by 2015. As the only truly global principles, these would have significant influence. There were also calls for human rights to be the main theme of the next Forum. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, in many senses, the international Magna Carta, such a theme would allow all stakeholders to see shared valued in a people-centred internet environment. Dixie Hawtin