Conference addresses Internet freedom challenges

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (ERR)
Scott Abel
4/28/2014 5:36 PM
Category: Sci-Tech

The tensions created between government, businesses and citizens by the use and the abuse of the Internet were on display today at the “Free and Secure Internet For All” conference, a meeting of the Internet Freedom Coalition.

The conference is part of ICT Week in Tallinn, and is playing host to more than 400 leaders in politics, civil society and business. 

In his remarks to the conference at the Swissôtel, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili spoke extemporaneously about his country’s experience in 2008, when it came under extended cyber attack and an occupation of a fifth of its territory by the Russian military.

“Our security, our identity, our protection, was very vulnerable, he said.” “It is very difficult to define where those personal spaces begin and end. How do we deal with it when one violates the identity of another entity?"

With Google Vice President Vint Cerf sitting in the front row wearing a new Google Glass headset, Margvelashvili then addressed the example of Abkhazia, one of the Georgian territories under occupation.

“When you are searching Abkhazia, it is listed by Google as an independent state, which is problematic for us,” he said. “Where is our space? What do we call freedom, when it is violating our identity? How do we resolve these issues, the interrelation between our personal spaces?”

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who learned computer programming as a teenager, said that the modern digitized society has revolutionized our lives in the barely 25 years of the civilian Internet. 

It is hard to imagine life without mobile phones, computers and iPads, he said, and some ways transformed it more radically than did television. 

"In the 1960s, television brought us into a global village, and helped bring the Vietnam War to public consciousness," Ilves said. "But that was a one-way view, so in many ways this revolution has been more powerful."

Ilves said this new technology has become in some ways, in the writings of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “a war of all against all”, instead of a contract between the government and the people that philosopher John Locke advocated.

“We are back to the world of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Everything can be known, and in some cases, everything is known,” said Ilves, who said he puts tape over the cameras on his phone and computer to prevent them being used by hackers.

“There is no Lockean contract in our cyberworld. We need our Locke and our Voltaire for the global Internet age. We have to rethink the basic terms of our Internet society.”

The unsettling of the international order in the last two months by Russia’s actions in Ukraine was a common theme, and how new media and propaganda played a strong role.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said “we see a serious violation of international law and the skillful use of propaganda tools.”

"Propaganda mongers are misusing their power and creating fear," he said. "The only answer for this is better education, and openness and transparency is the way forward. We have been forced to live under foreign rule for centuries, so we understand the nature of freedom."

Conference Notes

  • The conference continues on Tuesday. It is the fourth such conference, first held in the Netherlands, and will be hosted by Mongolia next year. The conference website is here, which has live video of some of the panels. The conference can also be followed on Twitter by the hashtag #FOC14.

  • The conference will draft a series of recommendations that have been developed in smaller sessions over the last year. Those in attendance at the conference will electronically vote on the resolutions with a special chipped identity card provided at the start of the conference. The proposal will be adopted by the Freedom Online Coalition member states.

  • The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban-Ki Moon, addressed the conference via a video recording, pointing out that there are 20 mentions of freedom in the UN Charter, and that degradation of human rights and repression of journalists continues in the world's hot spots.

  • Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted that Estonia had once held the top spot in various ranking for Internet freedom in the world, but now it's usually Iceland: "It's not because we've gotten worse, it's because they've gotten better," he said to laughter from those in attendance.

  • Netherlands Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, said that his first trip to Tallinn was in 1990, and the difference he sees is "night and day. In 1990 the fear was paltable. Now you see the extent of the propaganda in Russia, where 140 million people are having it wash over them, and the people making the propaganda are starting to believe it - we should not be naive about detached from reality people can get, if it is controlled and repeated on an hourly basis."

  • Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who is a consistent user of Twitter and widely followed around the world, said that "Twitter is just one of the communication tools that have become central to our lives, and 15 years from now they will be more central. You can't think about politics, you can't think about society, you can't think about the economy, without the Internet."

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