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Assault on State Censorship at the IGF

Knee-jerk UN haters in the US are fond of pointing horrified fingers at the presence of China, Syria and other authoritarian states whenever global governance is mentioned. See for example Declan McCullough’s slanted piece in CNET. They might be surprised to learn that the UN Internet Governance Forum has opened the opportunity for a major assault on Internet blocking and filtering, and put repressive governments on the defensive by heightening awareness of the practice and pressuring them to justify it or change it.

On Tuesday (October 31) there were no less than three sessions devoted to content regulation and control. Each of these sessions was dominated by anti-censorship advocates, access to knowledge advocates and critics of overbearing state control of internet content. At the main plenary session, criticism of China mounted to the point where that country might have gained some sympathy, but any such sympathy was destroyed when a Chinese delegate from Geneva stood up and bluntly asserted that China did not do any blocking or filtering. Laughter, gasps of disbelief and cries of “liar” came from the audience.

Later that afternoon, the Internet Governance Project and UNESCO sponsored a panel that included a representative of the government of France, the US State Department, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and the Open Network Initiative as well as IGP and UNESCO. Here again the sentiment was almost unanimously against blocking and discussions concentrated on the best ways to work globally against it.

That workshop was preceded by one sponsored by the Association for Progressive Communications, which dealt very directly with the issue of whether content regulation could be justified by appeals to feminism, violence against women, and the protection of minors from “harmful content.” Here again, most panelists opposed systematic extension of content filtering and blocking and directed fierce criticism against the Council of Europe representative on the panel, who tried to justify regulating “harmful content.” Developing world feminists argued that censorship always works against minorities and women, who lose the ability to explore their own sexuality and desire. She also noted the link between demands for porn laws and online surveillance, which threatens other rights.

Anonymity has been very important to women, one panelist argued, as they can bend gender, refuse to declare it, etc. While agreeing that child pornography is not permissible the speaker also recognizes that there is room for discussion about children’s sexuality and rejects idea that it should be repressed.

So where is that authoritarian threat to the Internet coming from, I wonder? Not from this Forum.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy

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Veni Markovski  –  Nov 5, 2006 9:57 PM

Blocking content is not always bad, neither is against human rights. I can understand the US point of view, where anyone can publish anything, and not be afraid of punishment.
However, in other countries, there are certain topics, which are ilegal, and you, as an American, should respect that.

You can’t export freedom of speech. You can’t export democracy. These are things you need to educate people about. And more importantly - you have to give them the good example. Many people believe Sweden is more free and democratic than the USA. Certainly, if you look at the social security, there are many countries taking much better care of their senior citizens, than the US?

Etc., etc.

The Internet is not, and can not be viewed separately from the global world. You can’t have different freedoms on line than the ones off line.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 11, 2006 7:26 AM

Well said, Veni.

ps: Milton, I don’t really recall my question in your “panel” on “dns root zone governance” (the one with a long fishing expedition into whether dnssec was a governance issue) getting answered at all.

What I asked was fairly simple.  Assume greater international government oversight over ICANN, especially on the issue of removing or revoking ccTLDs.  Or assume alternate roots, again with a much more broad based governance.

Now, there are at least some countries in the world that firmly deny the right of another country to even exist as a name, try as hard as possible to keep that country out of any international organization that it participates in, or at least insist that the other country’s participation be under a “different and more acceptable” name.

Both those countries have ccTLDs. Now suppose we get a demand to remove, or perhaps rename, that supposedly nonexistent country’s ccTLD.

What would be the result?

As I recall you summed up / projected my question as “oh right, so you don’t want the USA, but nor do we want other governments to have oversight, let’s remove all governmental control”, and that iranian gentleman on your panel would doubtless have repeated the old “code is law” axiom ..  or maybe cited one of your “papers”.  Or possibly gone off on another USA bashing expedition, talking about the Patriot Act et al, and expressing surprise that libertarians weren’t agreeing with him.  [and you wonder why he got shouted down?]

But as I told you there, that was not my point at all.  My point, as I mentioned there, was that while ICANN does need governance changes and more broad based participation, the US is a democracy with democratic processes in place, e&oe the current administration (especially now that it is a lame duck),  It’d still be a case of the devil you know, rather than dealing with the potentially unknown impact of several dozen countries wrangling for governance, and in the meantime shutting most of “civil society” out [or at least that part of civil society that prefers to shout slogans and direct fierce criticism when they’re not chowing down on spoonfuls of caviar topped salmon at IGF receptions].

“Governments have the flag. Industry and civil society certainly dont”.  The guy in the audience who told your iranian colleague “you don’t represent us” was quite right - industry and civil society especially in several developing economies, has grown quite wary of the government’s role in internet governance (especially as this role is sometimes oriented towards keeping overstaffed incumbent monopoly telcos afloat and cash-rich)

Your panel was, in my opinion, rather more slanted than Declan’s article was, but there were a few far better people on it and in the audience who certainly could have answered my question if we hadn’t run out of time.

Milton Mueller  –  Nov 11, 2006 10:30 PM

To Veni:

I am gratified to see you openly defending national censorship, and to see that you have openly abandoned the global nature of Internet communication in favor of a nationally bounded internet. And for that reason I’m really glad that you’ll be leaving the ICANN Board.

Just a correction: if by “exporting freedom of speech” you mean forcing individuals in other countries to use or see content they don’t want, no one is proposing that. (All kinds of private, voluntary blocking and filtering options exist.) The issue we are discussing is uniform, state-based censorship. The critics of this censorship at the forum came from Canada, the Philippines, South Africa, France and many other countries, not just the US. You would have learned a lot by attending the workshops. Our dialogue on this issue would have been less superficial.

Still, when you say to me, “respect the right of countries to censor and repress their populations,” I would reply that perhaps you should respect the freedom and rights of people in those countries who are being repressed. Perhaps, for example, when Bulgaria was a satellite of the Soviet Union the human rights community should have respected this more, and left it in place.

Milton Mueller  –  Nov 11, 2006 10:53 PM


Interesting contrast. First you praise Veni for rejecting application of what he thinks are U.S.-based standards of free speech to the global Internet. Then you say that the U.S. can and should be trusted with global oversight powers over the Internet because it is a democracy. But I suspect that your agreements and disagreements are based more on personalities than on clear thinking.

>Milton, I don’t really recall my question in >your “panel” on “dns root zone governance” (the >one with a long fishing expedition into whether >dnssec was a governance issue) getting answered >at all.

I would say that the question was discussed extensively. A transcript of the workshop will soon be up at the IGP site, by the way. http://internetgovernance.org

Keep in mind that I was the moderator and thus not the one to answer questions. But in the discussion there were those of us who, like me, agreed strongly with the implication of your question: it is a Bad Thing to introduce intergovernmental politics into the administration of the root zone file. You are not the first person to note this. You are probably, however, the only person who seems to think that this constitutes some kind of airtight excuse for unilateral US control.

The point you seem to ignore is that the US role inflames intergovernmental politics, just as surely as a multi-lateralization of oversight would. Possibly more so.

The panelists and audience recognized this as an issue but quickly moved into a discussion of which solution best deals with that problem. I proposed privatization, i.e., getting the US out; Cade proposed multi-lateralization; Riaz Tayob (who lives in South Africa, by the way, though I am sure casting him as an Iranian fits better with your stereotypes) did not propose a specific solution but suggested that disaggregation of icann functions is worth thinking about.

The persons who really needs to answer your question are Marilyn Cade, Becky Burr, and/or Riaz Tayob.

Talk to them.

Veni Markovski  –  Nov 11, 2006 11:38 PM

Poor Milton.
Let me explain to you what I wrote. Obviously you are the only one who interpreted what I wrote the way you did (out of the 487 viewers), and I believe it would be normal for you to say that you are sorry for your comment. It’s completely unacceptable, improper, and full with wrong statements.

Of course, in your promptness to report how happy you are I am leaving the Board (and forgetting the simple fact I am actually more happy than you are; but we had that conversations when I told you - if you want to change ICANN the way you want it, join the Board, and make that change happen, don’t just complain from the outside), you have forgotten to look above and see what I actually wrote. Instead you decided to comment on what you think. By the way, your comments are also a good way for an objective reader to find out what exactly you believe in.

Perhaps you should go back and read what you wrote again?

Let me go line by line in your happy response:

MM: I am gratified to see you openly defending national censorship,

Veni: I am defending the right of a nation, say France, or Germany, to say that they don’t allow any pro-nazi content. I don’t know if you like nazism, but there are countries, which don’t like it. Or the right of Bulgaria to seek shutting down of web sites, which contain anti-semitic contents (this is ilegal under Bulgarian laws; the FBI, however responded that there’s nothing they can do - the First Ammandment allows this). I don’t know if you hate the jews, and find such sites as normal - there are Bulgarians, obviously, who created them, and believe such sites are OK.

MM: and to see that you have openly abandoned the global nature of Internet communication in favor of a nationally bounded internet.

Veni: where your globalism meets for example my sense that it’s not just to have anti-anything (including, but not limited to Bulgarian anti-semitic and anti-gypsy sites, hosted in the USA), you may call it what you want. I call it normal citizen’s reaction. To relate my understanding of the freedom of speech to your statement that I’ve abandoned the global nature of the communications in favor of nationally bounded Internet is again your free interpretation not even of things I wrote, but of things I wouldn’t even think of. It’s so silly to say that, given not the academic theory, but the real, practical contribution that ISOC-Bulgaria, and me too, have in the creation of the most liberal Internet-related legislature in Europe. To quote Jim Dempsey of the CDT (you probably know him, and hopefully respect him), who said once that he wishes CDT could achieve at least a small portion of what ISOC-Bulgaria has achieved in the field of Internet freedoms in Bulgaria. While your attacks on me are irrelevant (they are not based on knowledge or facts, but on some feelings, which I can’t understand), by attacking or undermining what I’ve done in Bulgaria, you attack ISOC-Bulgaria, and people in my country who have helped in my efforts, and I can’t pass this with silence.

MM: Just a correction: if by “exporting freedom of speech” you mean forcing individuals in other countries to use or see content they don’t want, no one is proposing that.

Veni: This is a good example of what I mean, and what you mean. Instead of the normal way - of asking me “what do you mean by that?”, you assume you KNOW what I mean.
Milton, the USA is exporting (even as we speak) freedoms. For example to Iraq. Perhaps you voted republican in the last midterm elections, and you somehow have missed that fact. Or the outcome of the elections have caused temporary loss of common sense?

MM: Still, when you say to me, “respect the right of countries to censor and repress their populations,”

Veni: Milton, it’s MORE than obvious that I didn’t say that - just go above and read what I said. What you say is what you think, not me. To say something like that about me is not only childish, it shows total lack of knowledge about where I am from, and what I’ve gone through. To try to respond to this would require several different comments (no space will be left here). But, then, since you are in the state of writing what you wrote, I believe that it’s pointless to try to change your opinion.

MM: I would reply that perhaps you should respect the freedom and rights of people in those countries who are being repressed. Perhaps, for example, when Bulgaria was a satellite of the Soviet Union the human rights community should have respected this more, and left it in place.

Veni: So, Milton, we started from talking about the fact that certain topics are illegal - e.g. hatred against other ethnic groups, and you reached to the point where you decided to give examples with Bulgaria. Perhaps indeed the midterm elections have caused temporary lost of common sense?

disclosure: i am in a conference call, and using the small break to write this quick response. I will have no time to review or edit it before posting, but the opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the Internet Society - Bulgaria, or any other organizations, associated with or related to the author. This note is not legal advice. If it was, it would come with an invoice.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 12, 2006 2:18 AM

Veni, the funny thing is ..

> Let me explain to you what I wrote. Obviously you
> are the only one who interpreted what I wrote the
> way you did

Milton likes to say what he thinks other people think, no matter if that means he’s got to reword what they say to suit his acceptable world view of what public policy should be, and possibly introducing the sort of slant that would make a corkscrew appear straight by comparison.

And then, he goes and projects what I thought was a rather balanced article (Declan’s) as slanted.

I’m sure he’s glad you’re leaving the ICANN board. I dare say it’d suit him far better,  and fit his ideal image of ICANN (far more suited for criticism to be directed against it), if the board was exclusively populated by politicking incompetents rather than people who can think for themselves and are motivated by altruism.

By the way, Milton, did I refer to Riaz Tayob’s quoting Schumpeter, his frequent appeals to “libertarianism”, his rant on Bush administration policies completely unrelated to ICANN (besides his liberal quoting of your position papers) as naïve during that panel?  What I see, looking back, is not naïveté, that’d suggest innocent simplicity. 

What I see now, overall, is a failed attempt to try and manipulate public thought to suit the views of your “internet governance project”, or perhaps suit your views.  That’s really not going to work, you know .. your “panel” was about as great a “success” as your campaign to astroturf the NTIA.


Veni Markovski  –  Nov 12, 2006 4:58 AM

I really don’t believe - not even for a second - that I could actually change Milton’s opinion. On anything.
But I write my response to the people who may by accident find his article and read his comments. Because someone who doesn’t know the history, may come here, I want to make sure they read both sides of the same coin, and not only one.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 12, 2006 6:14 AM

That’s part of the reason why I follow up to his “position papers”.  People might actually end up believing them. Which wouldn’t be a very good thing at all.

Ditto my responses to various EFF people, whenever they start up their frequent propaganda campaigns against spam filtering (where they frequently invoke some sacred free speech memes like “blackmail”, “McCarthyism” etc). 

So, I tend to hit back with memes they wouldn’t like either, if only to drive home the point of just how absurd their reasoning is.  For example:

EFF and Its Use of Propaganda: Could Karl Rove do better? Probably

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