US Panel Puts Google, Facebook, Communications Platforms On Human Rights Frontline

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Recent events in the Arab region have brought the issue of access to the internet and social platforms sharply into the spotlight as governments have tried to block or limit internet access and cut millions of people from communication. A United States-hosted panel discussion in Geneva yesterday brought together representatives of Google, Facebook, and Access, a civil society group defending digital freedom.

The US mission to the UN organised the 4 March a panel discussion on the internet freedom and the way to promote human rights in the digital age, in parallel with the 16th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Although technology can enhance free speech and provide great opportunities, there are new risks and challenges such as technologies to shut down the internet, provide disinformation or invade the privacy of activists, said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour at the US mission.

Posner encouraged multistakeholder initiatives such as the Global Network Initiative, including a range of participants from companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and investors and academics.

Asked about the impact of Google and Facebook in the Egyptian civil movement, Peter Barron, Google’s director of communications and public affairs for Northern Europe, said that the most important point is that it was not the technology that caused the revolution. “It was the people’, he said, adding that Google was in favour of freedom of expression.

Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said that the platform is filled with content that users shared with each other. At turbulent times, he said, the value of a communications platform becomes even more significant, with connectivity to friends and family inside and outside the country seen as crucial. Allan said Facebook championed the idea of keeping the internet access open in countries, whatever the circumstances.

Communication platforms are on the front line of human rights defence, said Brett Solomon, executive director of Access. Google and Facebook are ahead in that, he said, and added that it was important to prevent companies from taking sides in a conflict, such as some telecommunications companies, which complied with the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Access provides a censorship map of the world on its website.

According to Allan, governments have the power to block access in two ways. They can ask internet service providers to block access or can block all access to the internet altogether. The only way out is
for the platform to go to the governments and ask that the service be unblocked.

Asked about the situation in Libya, Barron said that Google has traffic graphs in given countries and as of 3 March in the evening, the traffic internet in Libya was nil. However, Solomon said that access to internet through satellite might not be showing on that graph, and people might be using phone lines, as they are ways around total shutdown of the internet, he said.

On China, Barron said Google had agreed to censor some content in China in the hope that eventually the internet would be open but “it did not turn out that way,” he said, and the platform had to devise a new approach to China.

According to Posner, the growing demand of Chinese people for freedom of speech, and exchange of information is, in the long run, going toward an open internet in China. Egypt has been an interesting case, Posner said, of the consequences of shutting down the internet. For a modern country, it is “shutting yourself out from the world,” he said, and in the case of Egypt, it did not last long.

Allan said Facebook is a private company and does not have a role in discussing political issues. “We just want to have a platform that is available and secure”, he said.

According to a 4 March press release, Access compiled information from different sources, such as the Open Net Initiative, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House. It found that 28 percent of countries engage in some filtering, according to Open Net Initiative, 57 percent of countries are rated “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House, and 17 percent are ”enemies of the internet,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Masking Facebook

The NGO also launched a campaign to ask Facebook to secure its site and anonymise and protect their users, since they allege Facebook has ”empowered repressive regimes and identity thieves who exploit vulnerabilities in Facebook’s website and Terms of Service everyday.”

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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