Online Freedom of Speech: Still Safe, but for How Much Longer?

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Photo By Alain-Christian

Article By 

Advanced Leadership Fellow, Harvard University

In the world of UN conference boondoggles, luxury-loving oppressors masquerade as the oppressed, while seeking to restrict everyone else’s freedom.

In December 2012, under the auspices of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), representatives from 193 countries will meet in Dubai, in the UAE (ranked 112th in the world for press freedom) to discuss the future of the Internet. Slated for discussion are such basic online rights as: individual privacy, freedom of expression, and protection for individuals from tyrannical governments.

In November (perhaps, as a welcoming gesture to the ITU conference), the UAE issued by decree(without public debate, comment periods, or other democratic niceties) a new law making it acrime to deride, insult, mock or criticize, by using the Internet, the leaders of the UAE. Or perhaps the UAE issued this decree to celebrate its recent appointment to the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC). After all, nothing expresses a country’s respect for humans rights (and/or the UNHRC) like a decree making online criticism of the government punishable by a three-year minimum jail sentence.

The UAE fits surprisingly well with its peer group on the UNHRC. Some other members (with their press freedom rankings) are: Ethiopia (127th), Gabon (101st), Kazakhstan (154th), Pakistan (151st), and Venezuela (117th). Somehow the UN failed to include Saudi Arabia (158th), where adult women need permission from a male guardian to leave the country — perhaps it can join the UNHRC next year.

Ironically, one discussion topic for the ITU’s UAE conference is the role of national governments in managing the Internet, as communications become increasingly global. A number of countries view freedom of expression as an annoying Western folk custom (which inconveniences their ruling kleptocracies). They want more power to manage/control the Internet on a global basis. For example, I can’t safely call the UAE’s rulers (on a UAE website) an unelected, unaccountable non-transparent hereditary kleptocracy. But I can do so from the U.S. — without fear of having the website closed or ordered to remove the offending material. I can also do so without fear of going to jail — unless I’m silly enough to travel to the ITU conference in the UAE.

This isn’t an abstract concern, or just a UAE issue. Internet users in China only see news filtered by the Great Firewall of China, so they’re often unaware of their leaders’ kleptocratic inclinations. For example, when the New York Times published a well-researched, highly-documented story describing the nearly $3 billion fortune accumulated by the family of China’s outgoing Prime Minister, the Chinese government didn’t deny the article’s accuracy, but blocked Chinese access to the Times.

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