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Muzzled by the United Nations

The Internet Governance Forum is winding down today in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. There have been a lot of very constructive conversations in workshops and panels over the past four days about how to advance security, privacy, child protection, AND human rights and free expression on the Internet. Unfortunately, the biggest headline coming out of the forum so far has been an incident on Sunday in which a poster promoting a book about censorship by the Open Net Initiative was removed by U.N. security. See reports by the BBC, the Associated Press, and the ONI’s FAQ on the incident. Also see a YouTube video of the incident, and video of IGF Chairman Markus Kummer explaining the incident.

Kummer said in his briefing that the UN has a “no-poster policy,” although various other posters have in fact appeared at various times throughout the conference. One example here. According to those present during the ONI incident, the reason for the poster’s removal given by U.N. security officials at the time was that a U.N. member state had complained about it. Given that the poster mentioned Chinese Internet censorship, we can guess which member state objected.

The Chinese government made it clear earlier this year that they do not want the IGF to continue. Veteran IGF attendees have pointed out that there has been no Chinese-organized panel or workshop this year, in contrast to previous years. In conversations in the corridors with some participants from Western governments and other organizations, a number of people have expressed concern that China is feeling alienated. Nobody is sure what China’s next move will be, and there is worry that the Chinese government may ally itself with some other governments in a move to end the IGF after its initial five-year mandate expires next year.

In a workshop about governance of social networks on Tuesday afternoon, I raised a number of specific examples of how various governments are moving to stifle free expression by their citizens on social networking websites through a variety of censorship and surveillance measures. I also raised other problems that some human rights activists in specific countries have encountered when using social networks to document human rights violations or organize political movements: they sometimes get their accounts shut down by company administrators because their images documenting human rights abuses are too violent or the pattern of their political organizing activity is too similar to spamming. Examples included:

  • China’s system of censoring blogs and social networking services: Overseas services like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Blogspot, and the like are blocked in China. As a result most people in China use social networks and blogging services run by domestic companies which are held liable for everything their users post on their services. These companies end up having to set up up entire departments of employees whose job it is to monitor and censor all user-generated content on their services. Foreign companies wanting to create localized versions are expected to do the same. MySpace is one company that ended up doing so, though many other companies—including Facebook—have opted for now not to set up censored versions of their services inside China, despite the fact that this denies them access to a large user base, because they are uncomfortable getting so deeply into the censorship game.
  • South Korea’s real-name registration system, which caused YouTube to disable video uploads and comments on YouTube Korea. Google was concerned that hosting such data domestically inside Korea might cause the company to violate the Global Network Initiative‘s principles on free expression and privacy, which Google has committed to uphold.
  • Egyptian blogger and journalist Wael Abbas used YouTube to document human rights abuse and torture by the Egyptian police, and got his account suspended by YouTube administrators because they thought he had violated Terms of Service banning “gratuitous violence.”
  • Grassroots political activists in a range of countries from India to the United States have had their Facebook accounts suspended because Facebook’s automated systems thought they were spammers.

This afternoon (4pm local time, 9am EST, 9pm Beijing) I will be speaking on a plenary panel about social networks. I and the other panelists have been told very clearly by people in charge that we can’t mention specific U.N. member countries, and we’re discouraged from “naming and shaming” any other kinds of specific entities as well. It’s going to be rather difficult to discuss emerging issues related to social networks without being able to give any specific examples of specific countries and companies. More broadly, it’s rather difficult to make progress in global Internet governance without being able to discuss specific cases in the public meetings, or applying any value judgments to what any of the actors are doing. But that’s the United Nations for you. Last night I considered whether it even made sense for me to remain on the panel. I decided to stay on it because I hope that I can get a message across—albeit generically—about free expression concerns on social networks, and how the Global Network Initiative is one way to help companies navigate these concerns.

For what it’s worth, live video of the session will be here.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online

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This last point you raised is the only one I disagree about Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 18, 2009 4:42 PM

> Grassroots political activists in a range of countries from India to
> the United States have had their Facebook accounts suspended because
> Facebook’s automated systems thought they were spammers.

A lot of grassroots activists adopt the same practice a spammer does - sending unsolicited bulk email (or unsolicited bulk invites to facebook events for that matter).  That they do it in what they (and others too) feel is a good cause doesnt do a thing to change the fact that it is spam, and violative of facebook’s (or their email provider’s) policies.

NGOs don’t have any right to violate other’s privacy by sending out unsolicited bulk messages highlighting human rights abuses, privacy violations or whatever else. If they’re not respectful of others’  privacy and violate the terms of service of facebook by sending unsolicited bulk messages, they’d get their accounts terminated.

I’ve had this same argument years back with the EFF, about moveon.org and spam.


etc etc.  Now I see the same old story starting up again, this time about NGOs spamming using facebook. 

Things never do change, I guess.

As for your india example (the pink underwear campaign against some religious fundamentalist goons) Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 18, 2009 4:54 PM

I remember it because it was because of abusive activity from one of that campaign's opponents - who kept hacking into the campaign's facebook profile (possibly through a fake third party app or similar). Accounts that are hacked into are deactivated by facebook (or any other service) as a basic security precaution. They can be re-enabled when the attack stops or the attacker has been blocked out. I guess that was fixed because a quick search on facebook finds me at least 3 pink chaddi campaigns (probably mirrors or campaign organizers in different indian cities). I won't call that censorship or muzzling. So - 1. Yes censorship occurs. It'd be naive to pretend it doesnt occur 2. Please dont confuse censorship with information security precautions, or acceptable use policy enforcement 3. There are plenty of other examples you can pick from 4. I do wish some NGOs would be more ethical about their email publicity practices. Spamming because "its all in a good cause" isn't the right answer.

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