Online Free Expression: Values, Progress, and Complexities

This is a liveblog of a panel at Google’s Liberty at 2010 conference.

Darius Cuplinskas of the Open Society Institute UK is moderating this panel.

Speaking is Dunja Mijatovic of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Merve Alici of the Turkish Young Civilians (Turkey) and Eva Simon of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Hungary) are respondents.

Mijatovic opens by joking that our free speech has been limited at this conference due to lunch going overtime.  She says, “I’m happy to see that this conference is called Liberty at 2010; anyone who has lived in an oppressive society can understand why that’s so important.”

“For centuries, the right to free speech has been seen as the cornerstone of democracy; on the web, it is a double-edge sword.  On the one side, upholding civil rights, on the other, enabling censors.”  She explains that in her experience in many places in the world, free flow of information online is used as a tool to restrict and silence voices, to explain to citizens that the best way to fight evil online is to block websites.

She brings up the example of two Azerbaijani bloggers who are imprisoned for a joke they posted online.  There are also online journalists imprisoned elsewhere, she reminds us.  It’s hard to defend bloggers, and hard to find information, but there are lots of people working hard to bring these cases to our attention, she points out.

Free expression remains a challenge for many governments, says Mijatovic, whose focus is the OSCE.  Journalists across the region face serious restrictions.  “It’s hard to make a judgment sometimes when you are in a position to talk about emerging democracies,” she points out, “we shouldn’t use old democracies as an example, necessarily.”  She tells us her job is often to contact governments first, and go public second.

She points out that countries with existing democracies and high Internet penetration rates are often at the forefront of copyright protections, anti-terrorism legislation, and other causes, which are then used to create vague laws that can be used for other purposes.

Countries with penetration rates of less than 10% might have other restrictions, such as the requirement for Internet users to show identification to use a cyber cafe.  “With the situation of online and offline media freedom and access diverse across the OSCE, no one country fits a perfect model to help us deal with these challenges.”

In the end, she says, if governments don’t wan to comply with standards, there is little anyone can do.

“The question is, therefore, how can we ensure the Internet remains pluralistic and allows for a variety of opinions, not just those that support politically, socially, or nationally agreed upon content?” asks Mijatovic prior to turning discussion over to the respondents.


Merve Alici from Turkey brings up the Turkish example; some Turks have access to circumvention technologies that allow them to access sites like YouTube, but those who don’t are hit with a blockpage explaining why the site’s been blocked (in the case of YouTube, insulting Ataturk).  She points out that YouTube, MySpace, and a number of other popular sites are all filtered in Turkey.

The process started with a desire to block child pornography, explains Alici, but later the censors used the excuse to filter other websites.

“Civil society is organizing more efficiently over the Internet,” says Alici.  People can now make their voices heard, despite censorship.  But censorship in Turkey doesn’t start with the Internet, she points out, and blocking YouTube isn’t all that different from banning a political party.

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union rep Eva Simon explains the Hungarian situation: The government has proposed a new piece of legislation on new media, that is being opposed by journalists. Problematic, says Simon, is that it equates print press, bloggers, TV, and radio all in one basket, with no consideration of those as separate entities.  It also contains clauses such as one that condemns the “harming of churches and minorities,” a clause that makes it easy to open the scope of regulation and thus fine content providers within the context of the law.

The other regulatory problem, says Simon, is network regulation, a proposal on the table in the EU and the US.  There’s an ongoing public consultation on net neutrality in the EU, and the European approach has kept civil rights issues such as free expression separate from net neutrality.  The commission sees net neutrality as a competition issue, but Simon says it’s not sufficient to think this way.

Simon believes that network neutrality, as well as content regulation, should both be up for discussion in the EU.

Darius Cuplinskas of OSI Europe asks Dunja Mijatovic to comment on the Hungarian draft law from an OSCE perspective; Mijatovic says that she has addressed the government on numerous occasions and have offered expert assistance for Hungary to apply with EU, OSCE and other international standards on freedom of expression.  She says that those attempts have been ignored by the Hungarian government, thus she instead chose to raise the issues publicly within her role at the OSCE.  The topic was written about, and the piece then sent to the Hungarian government.

Audience Response

The floor will now be opened for audience comment.

Wael, a Jordanian blogger and owner of a startup, says that we’ve been looking at governments as enemies of the Internet.  Wael sees this as an extreme picture; in Jordan, Wael says the government is not always the enemy.  He then brings up the example of the importance of Internet business in Jordan as an industry, and says that the Jordanian government is working hard to build infrastructure and regulate the Internet to make the country more hospitable to entrepreneurs.

He mentions the Jordanian cybercrimes law, and says that the government invited bloggers and citizens to join the discussion; in the end, the government changed the law “according to the demands of the sector.”

Mijatovic responds by saying that we need to recognize legitimate government rights to protect citizens with certain laws, but that such laws should not go beyond what is necessary in a democratic society.  She also says that some countries are using such laws to go beyond necessity and silence critical voices.

Eva Simon speaks again to say that she believes most governments are actually trying to restrict free speech, even the US, which she calls a “haven for free speech.”  She mentions that industry is a good thing to bring up; what we consider as the Internet now is what industry offers us.

Merve Alici says that, in the case of Turkey, it’s not the government that’s doing all the censorship (some of it is related to the judicial system and happens by court order).  She says people need to be prepared to see things they don’t like.  Using an analogy, she says that what ought to happen is that “laws which allow for someone to shut down a library because of one book should be lifted.”  She says these processes should be more difficult so people think twice before trying to flush out content they disagree with.

An audience member from Azerbaijan speaks up, saying that a government official refused to speak up for the jailed bloggers because they are not “real journalists.” He asks Mijatovic if we should draw a more definitive line between bloggers and journalists.

Mijatovic says “I’m not in a position to make judgments on what is or is not journalism.”  She does add, however, that bloggers are a priority and regulation of their activities is most certainly a free speech issue.  She adds also that she’s very concerned about the jailed Azerbaijani bloggers, their condition, and the justification that was used for their imprisonment.

Raed Jarrar speaks up to say that “we deal with these issues as if we, Americans and Europeans, can go around saving bloggers and acting like that’s not problematic.”  He states that we can’t deny that censorship is an issue, but asks the question: “Who solves it?  Should we fly from DC to Tehran to solve it, or is it up to Iranians?”  He then asks: “What would the people of Hungary feel about the Saudi government funding an organization here to support Hungarian fights or funds bloggers against their government’s legislation?”

Mijatovic says: “It’s difficult to make a distinction; Hungary was criticized for not keeping commitments.  They’re part of the OSCE but not upholding OSCE values.”  She says: “If I go to Iran, I don’t have a mandate because Iran is not a participating state of the OSCE.”  She reminds us that, without people, the Internet is only a tool.  “I do not think that criticizing certain laws, such as in Iran, should be seen as interfering with internal agendas.”  She states that when she criticized a law in Italy, it was seen as meddling in internal affairs.

Eva Simon adds that when a country’s standards are being lowered by its government, it’s an important part of the debate; comparing different levels of free speech is not easy, but she believes in free speech as a universal value that should be allotted to everyone, regardless of cultural differences.  “The opportunity to be able to raise one’s voices is important and why Internet is so important…that opportunity.”

Walid Al-Saqaf from Yemen mentions to Merve Alici that the Turkish parliament has more restrictive filtering than regular Turkish ISPs.  He also asks: “Is there a law that prohibits members of parliament to use their own servers?”

Merve Alici responds: “Censorship is rooted deep in the system making in Turkey.  People are afraid; without dealing with domestic conflicts and the fears that inspire censorship, we cannot resolve these taboos.”  Alici doesn’t think censorship will end in Turkey anytime soon.  She says that we need to work together; if Turks fight for YouTube, they must also fight for other types of free expression, such as Turkey’s laws that prohibit people from saying things against state organs.

Cuplinskas thanks us for our time and closes the session.

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