Internet Governance Forum: A missed opportunity for human rights

By Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

As you read this on your laptop, smart phone or tablet, 3,000 government leaders and representatives from companies and civil society are meeting in Istanbul to shape the future of the Internet, which enables you to see these words.

3,000 government leaders and representatives from companies and civil society are meeting at the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul ©EPA.
3,000 government leaders and representatives from companies and civil society are meeting at the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul ©EPA.

But as the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (#IGF2014) draws to a close today, it seems it will be remembered not for what was discussed but for what wasn’t.

Turkey’s prosecution of 29 Twitter users, the USA and UK’s unlawful global surveillance programs, and the unregulated trade in software used by repressive regimes to hunt down human rights activists were some of the most noticeable “elephants in the room” during the conference … but the list is much longer.

Civil society managed to get many of these issues on the conference’s agenda but governments chose to ignore them.

Governments’ failure to even acknowledge some of the most pressing issues when it comes to online freedoms was shockingly clear at the forum’s opening press conference. A journalist asked the question on everyone’s mind: isn’t it ironic that Turkey is hosting #IGF2014 given that it has put 29 people on trial for what they said on Twitter? The Turkish official on the panel simply ignored him.

Later, during the opening ceremony, the Turkish minister of information failed to mention “human rights”, an official theme of the conference he is chairing, during a 15-minute speech.

Turkey is far from being the only government abusing the Internet.

Earlier this year, the Saudi Arabian authorities sentenced Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of US$266,630 for expressing his opinions in his blog. On Monday, an appeal court upheld Raif’s sentence.

Also in the past year, the US and UK governments have undermined online freedoms with the mass surveillance programmes run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which are invading privacy globally.Their continued failure to address the massive violation of privacy by their security agencies makes a mockery of their professed interest in promoting freedom of expression online.

How can they stand up and tell other governments that they shouldn’t be seeking to build their own surveillance programmes?

Companies based in western countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy are even exporting software that allows governments in countries such as Ethiopia to access the computers of human rights activists, bloggers and journalists and persecute them.

It’s pernicious that these and other countries claim to protect privacy on the one hand but fail to stop their companies from selling technology that will be used to abuse human rights.

But not one of these important issues were discussed at the forum, and as I prepare to leave, what is clear to me is that this summit will not improve Internet governance for users.

While every official I have seen in Istanbul will be happy to stand up and say that the Internet is good for innovation and economic growth, governments across the world are, each in their own way, making it less open, whether by blocking websites, banning Twitter or monitoring everything you do online.

The fact is that governments want to control our Internet and in the process restrict your online freedoms.

But the power to stop them lies with you. We must all keep an eye on what our governments are doing. Hold them to account and take control of our Internet.

More information

At #IGF2014, Amnesty International highlighted five cases relating to violations of human rights and the Internet.

Twitter users on trial while Turkey hosts key UN Internet summit (News Story, 2 September 2014)