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Competing Narratives Over Internet Freedom

By Sandra Ristovska

An underlying theme that guided much of the discussion at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar was whether and how political systems influence and/or interfere with media systems. This theme was particularly apparent in the conversations about the global struggle for Internet freedom. Questions that emerged included: How do competing narratives over the definition of Internet freedom play out in policy and advocacy efforts? What are the new realities of power, freedom, and control in the Internet age? Is there a normative framework for Internet governance?

Over the past few years, concern over preserving the Internet’s essential attributes as a free and open means of communication has grown exponentially, fueled in part by the belief that it is and can continue to be a platform for social, political, and economic change. Although various actors have outlined components of Internet freedom—open and decentralized, neutral and non-discriminatory, user-centric, abundant, global and borderless—these idealistic terms used to define Internet freedom conflict with digital realities. As states like China and Iran seek to extend their regulatory authority over the Internet, there is a rising anxiety about the ramifications of a territorialized digital environment.

As Rebecca MacKinnon argues in Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, the Chinese government promotes “authoritarian deliberation.” China’s parliament has an “e-parliament,” a website that encourages dialogue on diverse topics including local corruption, financial reforms, and the controversial one-child policy. The difference between democratic and authoritarian deliberation is that in an authoritarian setting, the state establishes the parameters of political speech. MacKinnon, for example, explains that while China would immediately censor an online discussion about multiparty electoral reform, it would support postings regarding policies it is in favor of amending, like the one-child rule. Hence, the Chinese government sees online discussions as helpful tools for measuring potential public reaction to upcoming policy changes. This example highlights the existence of various definitions and policy implementations of Internet freedom. Indeed, China argues that it supports its own Internet democracy.

Various government, corporate, and civil society actors use both idealistic and factual terms to construct narratives about Internet governance. These narratives make distinguishing between freedom of and via the Internet not only a rhetorical activity but also perhaps a methodological one. As academics, it is our responsibility to explore the ways in which these Internet freedoms are constructed because they have implications for media law and policy. How do we frame Internet freedom on a global scale? What happens to countries where governments have figured out ways to use the Internet as a space that spreads populist discourse and supports the status quo? These are ongoing concerns.

The IT corporations that produce the technologies necessary for Internet connectivity also play a complicated role in the debate. While simultaneously opening up new communicative spaces by providing networking technologies, they have also been involved in furthering governmental control of information. In some cases, this has resulted in human rights abuses. For example, Nokia Siemens was accused of facilitating torture in Bahrain. Privacy International has been vocal about the danger of surveillance technologies, and Former White House Official Andrew McLaughlin calls surveillance a free expression issue.  

The inconsistent narratives over Internet freedom are not exclusive to the non-Western world. The principle of intermediary liability—which holds the content creator and not the ISP or website host responsible—has been a source of controversy in both the United States and the European Union. Very recently, we witnessed protracted debates about three pieces of legislation: the U.S. Congress Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the U.S. Senate Protect IP Act (PIPA) counterpart, and the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). SOPA and PIPA proponents argued that the bills would inhibit online copyright infringement. Bill opponents were vocal and organized in their assertions that minimized intermediary “gatekeeping” assists freedom of expression online and that the legislation would move the Internet towards rigorous censorship and control. They also argued that important online platforms would cease to exist if they were faced with the burden of reviewing enormous amounts of content for copyright violation. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA could become powerful and often non-transparent tools for corporate and state censorship. At the very least, the examples suggest that we—civil society, governments, and citizens—have yet to negotiate how best to address the issue of intermediary liability, how best to formulate regulatory responses about Internet freedom, and how best to regulate technology companies in order to ensure they are not assisting foreign governments in human rights abuses.

There are also problems surrounding the normative framing of Internet freedom, which has typically focused on freedom of expression and international human rights. Freedom of expression, as articulated by Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Numerous civil society groups who advocate for free and open Internet around the world, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, have adopted the article as a guiding principle. However, this perspective is partial because it limits the definition of the Internet as a means of communication while potentially ignoring its function as a social space. Equating offline and online human rights and freedom, therefore, is a way of broadening public understanding about Internet freedom. In her well known January 2010 “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted the United States’ perspective that Internet users have to be assured several basic freedoms, among which the freedom of expression is the primary one.

However, the universal human rights framework could perhaps work better especially since there are inconsistencies between how Western democracies articulate online freedom of expression norms and how they implement them at home, which authoritarian governments can easily point out. Furthermore, the focus on freedom of expression often overlooks the importance of freedom to connect. Regardless of whether we situate conversations about Internet freedom within the international freedom of expression norms or the right to connect discourse, we confine the discussion to political contexts. In her background paper on internet freedom prepared for the Aspen Institute International Digital Economic Accords (IDEA) Project, Shanthi Kalathil pointed to another critical aspect of Internet freedom: economics and trade. Given the commercial implications, can and should internet censorship be treated as a trade issue?

Various concluding remarks at the Seminar stressed the critical nature of information rights. Normative regulatory responses to the protection of information rights however, are often at the heart of the tension between containment and interaction. On one hand, countries like Iran and China attempt to contain information rights within geographic nation-state boundaries. On the other hand, even vocal objections to norms such as “the right to connect” are best characterized as dialogic, an entry into a conversations. Norms can be created, modified, and changed. Therefore, governments, civil society and private sector need to keep the conversation alive. 



Sandra Ristovska is a third year doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. As a documentary filmmaker, former radio journalist, and an aspiring communication scholar, she thinks broadly about media narratives and their resonance locally and internationally.

[Photocourtesy of Shutterstock]


This is the fourth in a series of five dispatches from the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar titled, "Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011". To read the others, click here: III, IIIV.


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