US Defender Of Internet Freedom, Keen On Protecting IP Rights

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For the third year in a row, the United States mission to the United Nations in Geneva brought together human rights activists from different parts of the world in an effort to promote internet freedom. At a press briefing, a senior US State Department official described efforts to address challenges to freedom on the internet, and said that intellectual property in the context of internet is a complicated issue.

The Internet Freedom Fellows program, whose first round dates back to 2011, is organising events in Geneva, Washington DC, and Stanford University (California), from 4-15 March.

The aim of the programme is to bring “human rights activists from across the globe to Geneva, Washington, and Silicon Valley to meet with fellow activists, U.S. and international government leaders, and members of civil society and the private sector engaged in technology and human rights.,” according to the US mission website.

On 7 March, Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation to the US Secretary of State, was at a press briefing on securing human rights online. “Internet freedom has become a real pillar of US foreign policy priorities,” he said. Universal rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and a free press should be exercised on the internet, he said, adding that unfortunately, over the years “internet has become an environment not merely competitive but increasingly conflict ridden.”

“Too many governments around the world view the empowerment of citizens as coming at their own expense and they fear the loss of control which comes with connectivity,” Ross said. “In the face of this, the US stands resolute in favour of an open internet and protecting the freedoms of expression association and assembly on line as well as off line,” he added.

Asked about what the US was doing to increase freedom on the internet, Ross said that over the last four years, about US$100 million was spent developing technologies to allow people to exercise their universal rights. Most of about a dozen projects are classified except for two, he said.

One of the projects is the Commotion (Wireless) programme, he said. This has been dubbed by as the “internet in a suitcase,” and is a project run by the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation. “It is a response to countries as Iran and Egypt, who in the face of dissent literally turned down or slowed down the internet and global networks,” he said. The Commotion Wireless is a technology is described as “an open source ‘device-as-infrastructure’ distributed communications platform that integrates users’ existing cell phones, WiFi-enabled computers, and other WiFi-capable personal devices to create a metro-scale peer-to-peer (mesh) communications network,” on the Open Technology Initiative webpage.

Another project, Ross said, is nicknamed “The panic button” in response to some situations in which people are arrested, their mobile phones confiscated, and then they are tortured to obtain all their passwords, so that their texts, emails, and address book become a guidebook to resistance. For instance, in Iran in 2009, he said, mobile phones became a point of “remarkable vulnerability for people trying to freely express themselves.”

The panic button is “something that if you think you are in the danger of being arrested … you can key in a code and it wipes and stores your communications and your address book to the cloud in a way that it cannot be keyed out,” he said. The protocol also sends a stress signal to a pre-identified network of individuals to tell them the person has been arrested, he said.

Kathleen Reen, vice president for global initiatives at Internews, a non-profit organisation aimed at empowering local media, said at the briefing that it is important that human rights advocates be protected and so protections should be in place, they should be shared and affordable. “Most people in the world do not have access to a credit card and cannot afford the kind of top line services that large media outlets have to stay safe and secure online,” she said.

IP and Internet

In the US, nine million Americans got involved in a campaign because they did not want two legislative bills against online piracy, he said, because “it would have disrupted the way that the internet works.” He was referring to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), both of which raised a vast campaign against their introduction that led to the Congress withdrawing them. In that case, he said, the public played a very influential role determining how the internet would be governed. He said he thinks the same kind of dynamic is going to play out in much of the rest of the world.

According to Ross, some governments are purchasing increasingly powerful surveillance technologies. “In the US, we have access to these technologies ourselves but there is a due process and rule of law which governs our ability to surveil our citizens. You have to have a warrant with probable cause and other such things to be able to intercept communications. ”

Copyright and Freedom: It’s Complicated

On a question about the intersection of copyright and freedom on the internet, Ross said “reconciling IP rights with the way internet works is very difficult.” “The posture of the US is that the laws in the real world should extend into the online world,” he said.

“We are champions of protecting IP,” Ross said, adding that “the line that was drawn by President Obama was that we will protect IP but the way that he articulated it following SOPA and PIPA was that, so long as is does not undermine people’s ability to freely express themselves.”

“If you look at the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) and other treaties, or pieces of proposed legislation, what it seeks to do is to protect IP without undermining the way that the internet works, but this is going to be an increasingly complicated issue over the next couple of years,” he said.

Both ACTA and the TPP have raised serious concerns among civil society, which have vehemently criticised the potential consequences of those agreements.

Internet platform companies need to partner with entertainment companies, he said, calling in example the Northern California and Southern California industries. There should be industry partnerships between platform companies which are the distribution channels for the content and the entertainment.

Geopolitical Power Shift, Future of Internet

There is a massive shift in geopolitical power taking place in the world, Ross said. Not the presumed shift happening on a geographic basis like the global North and the global South, but rather “there is a shifting power in most of the 196 countries in the world and that is a shift of power from hierarchies like governments and large media companies, to citizens and networks of citizens,” and technology is facilitating this shift, he said.

According to Reen, one of the biggest challenges in the internet sphere is the participation of civil society and the ability of citizens to have a voice at the table in determining what the future of the internet actually looks like.

Internet is in many ways owned by everybody, she said, and the challenge is that the governments alone cannot solve the question of how the internet will be governed. This will entail a larger community at the table, she said.

Newly networked countries, such as Ukraine and Thailand who are beginning to form the internet policies in their countries will have a lot of influence in determining what the future of internet is going to look like, Ross said. “Is the internet going to be one global network or is it going to be a patchwork of national intranets,” he asked. That is not going just to be decided by large countries such as the US, Russia and China, but increasingly by those newly networked countries, he said.

This year’s fellows in the Internet Freedom Fellow Program this year are: Grigory Okhotin, independent journalist and co-founder of the grassroots police monitoring organization OVD-info; Mac-Jordan Degadjor, Ghanaian social blogger, writer, IT professional and digital activist; Michael Anti, (Jing Zhao 赵静), Chinese journalist and political blogger; Edetaen Ojo, executive director of Media Rights Agenda, Usamah Mohamed, activist and citizen journalist from Sudan; Bronwen Robertson, research manager and editor for Small Media in London.


Catherine Saez may be reached at

Creative Commons License"US Defender Of Internet Freedom, Keen On Protecting IP Rights" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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