The annual Internet Governance Forum was established to foster an open, inclusive dialogue among the parties that “govern” the Internet. IGF is a conference designed, somewhat counter-intuitively, to maintain a unified Internet by decentralizing control. This year’s conference, held Sept. 2-5 in Istanbul, itself prompted spinoff events — the Internet Ungovernance Forum and the “Bye Bye Internet Freedom” press conference — that focused on government efforts to use the Internet to violate freedom of expression and rights to privacy, particularly in Turkey, the IGF host country.
Though they featured less than a quarter as many sessions as the official IGF, the spinoff events and Turkey’s free speech violations dominated the online narrative emanating from Istanbul last week. The most popular Tweets from the conference focused on the Turkish government’s censorship of the Internet:
— Neelie Kroes (@NeelieKroesEU) September 2, 2014
— AmnestyInternational (@amnesty) September 2, 2014
— Kevin Bankston (@KevinBankston) September 3, 2014
The Turkish government’s increasingly intense violations of freedom of expression and privacy rights were covered comprehensively at the “Bye Bye Internet Freedom” press conference organized by Reporters Without Borders. Representing the Turkish Association of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Turkey’s Alternative Informatics Association, the panelists itemized the government’s laundry list of human rights violations, both on- and offline. These include increased censorship of media, massively expanding powers of the national intelligence agency (MIT), increased surveillance of citizens and other privacy violations.
Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner emphasized that Turkey’s increased censorship of social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube should not be viewed in isolation; they are merely the online manifestation of a government that is intolerant to dissent in any format. His point, reiterated throughout the conference, was that we can’t talk about Internet freedom without talking about basic political freedoms and holding governments accountable for violating them. Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch warned that digital technologies leave citizens much more vulnerable to surveillance, as we leave digital trails that can be used as tools for greater government control. Turkey’s current prosecution of 29 Twitter users for nonexistent incitements to violence nicely illustrates the points.
Many at the spinoff events criticized that main IGF as too exclusive, purportedly having rejected nearly all workshops proposed by Turkish activists to advocate for freedom of speech. One attendee with organizing experience explained the proposed workshops did not follow IGF protocols, which place priority on panels and sessions that represent people from multiple countries with diverse viewpoints.
Garnering publicity by being staged “in protest,” the IUF and the press conference were more supplementary than incendiary in practice. They both provided more appropriate platforms to lodge pointed, critical attacks at government programs, notably in Turkey, that violate an open Internet and free expression.
Can a unified, global information network be maintained when we can’t even have a unified discussion about it? Does the fragmentation of the IGF discussion portend dangerous fragmentation of the Internet, in which splintered groups have separate but unequal access to information? Is the freewheeling multi-stakeholder ecosystem crumbling before our eyes and becoming too fractured to function?
I would argue no. Steeped in comedy, irony and identity crises, the IGF remains a place for players in all areas of Internet governance to come together in a necessary dialogue. With no cost to participate, the vast majority are truly there to build and grow a free and open information network. If only the same could be said for the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference.