Participants rose from the third annual Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) in Sweden in May calling on governments around the world to strike a more appropriate balance between battling cybercrime and respecting the privacy of citizens.
Participants relentlessly criticized the United States over its mass surveillance programmes during the two-day event, saying the US was only being hypocritical in professing to champion Internet freedom around the world and criticizing other countries for violating Internet freedoms when it is routinely conducting mass surveillance at home.
Besides, many participants argued, it is inexplicable that the US continues to regard Edward Snowden a criminal for leaking information about the mass surveillance programmes of the US National Security Agency (NSA) when the US Government has admitted that the whistleblower’s revelations had spurned a national debate on surveillance and privacy, leading to major reforms in the NSA’s surveillance operations.
The third Stockholm Internet Forum with the theme “Internet Freedom for Global Development” was held in the Swedish capital on May 27 and 28, and was organized by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the Internet Infrastructure Foundation (.SE) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
SIF was established to strengthen the dialogue between governments, industry, civil society, activists and academia worldwide, with the aim of recognising the mutual benefit of an open and robust multi-stakeholder internet.
The third SIF was intended to deepen the discussion on internet freedom and security with a continued focus on global development.
According to Mr. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, “It is important to continue a constructive discussion on human rights online – among them freedom of expression, access to information and respect for private life – as key parts of internet freedom.”
He said the conference was therefore focused on “norms for state behaviour with regard to issues such as privacy, rule of law, surveillance and control.”
Mr. Bildt explained that the conference was also intended to address the issue of how to “ensure that information and communication technologies continue to stimulate innovation and economic growth, democratic participation, business and trade, poverty reduction and freedom of expression, and how we can guarantee the enjoyment of human rights in the digital realm while maintaining a secure and robust online environment.”
In her opening remarks, Ms Anna-Karin Hatt, Minister for Information Technology and Energy of Sweden, noted that Internet access is connected to economic and social development, adding that the next billion internet users will come from the developing world.
She observed that there is an increased awareness of the importance of internet governance and canvassed the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance as a step forward, contending that it can give a voice to more actors.
However, Ms Hatt noted that it was still easier for well-resourced governments and companies to participate in Internet governance frameworks than other stakeholders, and called for continued efforts to empower the other stakeholders to have more meaningful engagements.
She said the emphasis for Internet freedom had shifted from freedom of expression to privacy as the Snowden revelations have brought many privacy issues to the table.
It was observed in the ensuing debates that the solution to Internet surveillance is not technical as it has to be political. Governments were accordingly encouraged to find a platform to talk to themselves and come up with political solutions to the problem.
Brazil’s leadership on the multistakeholder Internet governance model was roundly praised and it was suggested that other countries should follow Brazil’s example in passing further bills of Internet rights, like the Marco Civil da Internet, recently passed in Brazil.
Mr. Christopher Painter, Coordinator for Cyber Issues at the US State Department, labored under ceaseless attacks to defend the US against charges that by its actions, it had undermined Internet freedom around the world by providing justification for repressive governments which now excuse their actions by saying that “the U.S. also does it”.
Mr. Painter argued: “There was surveillance before the internet existed in order to protect their citizens. All countries have a duty to protect their citizens. But there needs to be safeguards. How many countries have had this debate that the US has had in the last years? How many presidents and parliaments have spoken so openly about their mass surveillance? In the US, we want to promote as much freedom of expression as possible. You should only battle speech you don’t like with speech of your own.”
Keynote speaker Carl Bildt stressed that “freedom on and off the net is an absolute key value today”, insisting that Sweden has the strongest protection for freedom of expression in its constitution than any other country in the world, a tradition he said has existed for centuries.
According to him, Sweden “is a country that censors nothing.”