Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights

On October 24th, 2011, George Washington University Law School hosted a presentation from Dr. Ian Brown entitled “Internet Freedom: a Comparative Assessment” as part of their speaker series on Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights.  Dr. Brown has extensive scholarship on electronic freedoms in the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU), and his talk covered many of the ongoing challenges in balancing the open flow of information and the concerns of government and law enforcement.

Dr. Brown began by outlining the UK and EU legal frameworks on communications.  The UK’s Communications Act of 2003 declares that the Office of Communications (OFCOM) shall “further the interests” of both citizens and consumers “by promoting competition.”   The relevant section in the Treaty on the European Union guarantees “fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” as well as the “constitutional traditions common to the Member States.”  The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights declares that all are guaranteed “respect for his private…communications,” “protection of personal data,” and “freedom of expression.”

These protections are strong.  Government response in a crisis can function differently.  Users of popular services such as Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerry Messaging were caught coordinating looting via their networks.  In the aftermath of this disturbing behavior, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made comments indicating he was considering shutting down some services in a crisis “to stop people communicating…when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”  But, as Dr. Brown pointed out, the Prime Minister has vocally supported revolutionary movements in the Middle East using social media.  To date, the UK government has not sought any additional authority to close down social media networks.

Dr. Brown also commented on issues of data privacy.  He cited a statement by Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, encouraging UK officials to enforce “legislation on the confidentiality of communications” in order to permit quick response to evolving challenges to protection of privacy and personal data.  This admonition was in response to a case where a UK company, Phorm, was discovered examining internet users’ activity without their consent in order to produce targeted advertisements.  Use of this type of data is not just limited to private companies: UK police have protested against the standing policy in which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may not retain usage information beyond the point it is needed for business purposes.  This typically ends up being three months, and as Dr. Brown pointed out, 70% of all law enforcement data requests take place within this timeframe, possibly implying that their concerns on this policy are overblown.  This issue is relevant domestically, as Google disclosed that government requests of user info have risen 70% in the last year.

This event provided a broad overview of the unique ways the UK and EU have approached issues of social networking, surveillance and data privacy.  In an environment where commerce and ideas frequently cross borders, it is important to not simply focus on domestic developments, but to examine how people approach electronic challenges worldwide.

To view the webpage for this event, including Dr. Brown’s presentation and archived video, click here.

Contributor Zachary Bastian

Zachary Bastian is a third year student at George Washington University Law School.  Before joining the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, he worked in the United States Senate studying policy and supporting the work of personal and subcommittee offices.  His interests include intellectual property, disaster mitigation and recovery, and leveraging technology to support better government.

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