October 18, 2011 | By Katitza Rodriguez

Blogging IGF: EFF Fights Against Dangers of Intermediaries as Internet Police

As several international organizations hatch new ways to impose control over online activities, genuine multi-stakeholder input in policy development becomes extremely crucial. The sixth UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Nairobi, Kenya, was an important venue for discussing competing models for governing the Internet.

EFF played a pivotal role in shaping the dialogue at this forum, and we were able to push our policies to enhance free expression and privacy, while preventing various government and corporate efforts at mobilizing Internet intermediaries to police the Internet. EFF explained why the effort to utilize Internet intermediaries--from Comcast to Youtube--as tools for surveillance and censorship is a dangerous and misguided policy that will impede innovation and freedom of expression.

At a workshop organized by the Council of Europe (CoE), EFF presented our analysis of the set of Internet governance principles produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developments (OECD) and the Council of Europe.

EFF supported the CoE’s principles because they create a solid foundation by stating that any Internet governance arrangement must ensure protection of fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law. The CoE also adopted a resolution recognizing that the right to freedom of expression is fully applicable to domain names. We also praised the U.N report on Freedom of Expression and Opinion for freeing private entities from the burden of policing the Internet. “...Censorship measures should never be delegated to a private entity, and that no one should be held liable for content on the Internet of which they are not the author...”

We reiterated our criticism of the OECD Internet governance principles adopted in June, for encouraging states to turn Internet intermediaries into Internet cops. These intermediaries are uniquely placed to exert an unprecedented level of censorship and surveillance since our most valuable information is transmitted through their services. Such new measures that seek Internet companies to deter infringement give Internet companies powerful incentives to surveil their customers.

Dramatic examples of intermediaries becoming spies, censors, and informants abound. In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security is using domain name registrars to confiscate domain names accused of copyright infringement (EFF is fighting these improper seizures).

In Ireland, ISPs have voluntarily begun cutting off citizens from the Internet based on allegations of copyright infringement. Several major U.S. Internet access providers struck a deal with big content industry to cut user’s Internet access based on allegations of copyright infringement. Yet millions of subscribers who will be governed by the deal were absent from the discussion.

During the meeting, we asked OECD member countries to further improve its multi-stakeholder discussions in future negotiations on Internet intermediaries to achieve consensus among all stakeholders. The process must respect international human rights as a baseline for any policy dialogue.

The users must be represented in the development of Internet policy because the future of the Internet is too important to be left to companies and governments alone.  The only way to get users’ views involved is a multi-stakeholder process, providing versatility, quicker responsiveness to changing situations, and an opportunity to directly persuade governments.

Multi-stakeholder processes cannot be multi-stakeholder in name only. Civil society must ensure the users’ inputs are included, and not left by the wayside. We should remain wary of the risk of multi-stakeholder processes being rendered moot by secret negotiations that circumvent transparent discussion. While negotiations at the OECD were held in Paris, recent documents disclosed by a Freedom of Information Act request revealed how, according to Wired, U.S. top ranking officials actively participated in “secret negotiations between Hollywood, the recording industry, and ISPs to disrupt access for users suspected of violating copyright law.” Such backroom deal-making cut the users out, to the detriment of the web's future.

The informal nature of IGF provided a vibrant space where all participants could debate openly. The forum, which was attended by governments, non-profits and companies from around the world present an amazing opportunity to reach out to governments and build global coalitions with civil society and like-minded organizations. More than ever, International cooperation among civil society needs to be strengthened to muster public outcry. EFF will continue to move forward policies that protect the open Internet and affirm existing limits on the liability of Internet intermediaries. We will continue to oppose legal and policy frameworks that encourage Internet intermediaries to filter and block online content or disconnect users from the Internet.


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