“Internet Freedom is Vital to Democracy”

March 17th, 2010   Theme: Internet Freedom

To Henrik von Sydow, the issue of internet freedom is one of democracy. It deals with the human right to freely seek, receive and impart information over the internet. Due to technological progress, this has become increasingly important in several spheres, including foreign policy, trade policy and development aid.
“Sweden should act as a role model promoting a free internet, easily available for everyone. Otherwise our criticism of regimes that eagerly strive to block the net will lack credibility. Therefore, it is not feasible to search, as do the Social Democrats, to block foreign gaming sites from reaching out to Swedes”, Henrik von Sydow argues.

But what about the Ipred law and the regulation on file sharing?

“The Swedish copy right regulation with all its insurances of due process and court trials have absolutely nothing to do with censorship, blockings and monitoring of the internet. Equating the laws in a democratic country, which honors the principle of rule of law, with those of the Chinese dictatorship is unfair. Those who consciously do these comparisons take too lightly the oppression of the citizens under authoritarian regimes.”

He believes Sweden to have an important role to play in regards to Internet openness and freedom of information. An example is that the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Speech has asked for Swedish help in an initiating meeting of experts aimed at defining principles for freedom of speech at the Internet. Sweden will host such a meeting in 2010.

During our conversation, Henrik von Sydow, shows a copy of this year’s Declaration on foreign policy and explains that for the first time freedom of information holds a prominent position within the Swedish foreign policy. Carl Bildt and the government thus emphasize that “the free flow of information and a global electronic infrastructure is crucial to economic development as well as an increased degree of freedom in the world. It is thus worrying to note that information technology is to a large extent abused by some actors, in order to restrain the free exchange of views, thoughts and ideas.”

“There is a rise in blocking and censoring of the internet. At the moment, this is most visible in Iran. Last summer, the Iranian authorities blocked five million web pages, in connection to protests against the regime. In China, Facebook, Skype and several search engines are blocked. The Chinese people are unable to freely search for information or to voice their opinions. In addition, this means that foreign companies are unable to, through ads, promote their products reach millions of Chinese.”

But, Henrik von Sydow continues, blocking of the internet increases dramatically also in Northern Africa and in the Middle East. Also Europe has joined the club. For instance, Turkey has blocked YouTube.

There is a specific pattern defining a totalitarian regime: As a first step, internet access is denied the general public. Only those with connections to the ruling party are allowed to surf the web. As a second step, the internet is blocked and censored. Lst but not least these regimes fill the web with their own information. They issue propaganda, monitor and strike against dissidents on the web.

The use of technology is affected by its societal frame and the intellectual climate in which it is used.

“We need an intellectual climate where technology is used to increase the freedom of individuals, not to imprison them”, says Henrik von Sydow.

However, he argues, this is not enough. Good institutions and a democratic government which respects the rule of law are in the long run crucial for technology to serve a good purpose. In this respect Sweden could provide support. One example is development aid policy where we should provide more technology oriented aid. Swedish development aid should, to a larger extent, give people access to different informational tools. This would be a first step in increasing freedom and promoting a well functioning democratic system.

“Nowadays, it is easier to support political opposition using new technology. It is easier to show that we know what’s going on.”

Using Twitter is one effective way, says von Sydow, and tells about the young American who created a Twitter tornado after having participated in a demonstration in Cairo against the Egyptian regime. His short message after the demonstration read: Arrested. This caused huge protests and at the end the student received juridical council by his university and was eventually released.

Henrik von Sydow has a suggestion for all twitters in contact with the opposition in Iran: “Change city of habit to Teheran, then the Iranian authorities will have difficulties in tracking cyber dissidents”. Today, it is more difficult than ever to get rid of dissidents, he notes, while at the next moment moving on to yet another dimension of internet activities – increased signs of cyber warfare.

”Both China and Russia are in the lead when it comes to cyber warfare. They see it as a way to balance the military force, where the US has a significant advantage.”

There are multiple examples of such warfare. In Estonia, government homepages and internet banking was stroke down when the country in 2007 decided to move a Russian monument. In Georgia, the internet activities of the Central Bank were blocked in connection to the invasion in 2008.

Today, a robust internet structure and a well functioning mobile network are almost as important as roads or electricity to provide a country with basic infrastructure.

But what about the increase in internet crimes? Doesn’t it threaten the freedom?

“Yes, an internet without law is an internet without value,” says Henrik von Sydow. “People need to be able to trust that we can do business at the internet without constantly risking fraud or other criminal actions. This must be an area regulated by laws just as in other parts of society.”

Text: Elisabeth Precht; Translation: Evelina Lorentzon

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