The President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, made an impassioned plea for the maintenance of an open and free Internet, yesterday, at the opening of the Freedom Online Coalition Conference in Tallinn, Estonia.
Highlighting the many contradictions of the Internet, President Ilves pointed out that whilst the Internet has played a role in helping people achieve freedom and freedom of expression, it is also a method of surveillance.
“Surveillance, the two way television of 1948's 1984, is enabled in every computer or iPad, unless you tape over the camera. Mobile phones are microphones that also can pinpoint your location. Big Data knows and can deduce more about you than Big Brother ever could.
“We could describe the resulting state of affairs using Thomas Hobbes's characterization of the anarchy of life in the state of nature as a war of all against all. No one is protected, anyone can access your privacy.”
To combat these negative effects, so clearly seen in government surveillance uncovered during the past year, President Ilves turned to another 17th century English philosopher, John Locke and called for a contract between people and their governments that regulates our lives online.
“In democracies we rely on John Locke's solution to the state of nature where he posited a contract between the government and the people. This contract, in democracies, underpins all of our relations between the citizens and governments.
“The problem we face today, ranging from child pornography to government surveillance to corporate use of our online searches is that we have no Lockean contract for the cyber realm.”
Looking at the plans of certain governments to fragment the Internet, President Ilves again turned to history for comparisons, suggesting that the Internet is on the brink of being broken up into mini-states, as happened in Europe following the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.
“Cyber threats, and the lack of regulation of the global Internet, has been brought up as a reason, or an excuse, to control and regulate cyber space, to limit the free flow of information, and to Westphalianize the Internet… what some governments really want is that we accept that each government be allowed to regulate its own Internet.”
Using words that could have been directed at particular nation states represented in his audience, President Ilves made it clear that “we can't take security lightly, security cannot be used as an excuse to limit freedom of expression. Cyber security cannot lie in highly restrictive legislation that plays into the hands of those who have a fundamentally different value system and no regard for human dignity and freedom of speech. Or who want to quash or limit free expression in the name of "domestic security."
The Estonian head of state made it clear that he sees the current model of Internet governance under the auspices of ICANN as currently the best available model and pointed to Estonia’s own achievements in eGovernment to show that “we do not have to see freedom and security as mutually exclusive.”
According to the President, if citizens and governments are to operate successfully in cyberspace, a contract or compact will be necessary. It is the only way to ensure that “principles catch up with realities and vice versa.”
Attended by 23 member states, the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is an inter-governmental organisation that is “committed to advancing Internet freedom – free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online – worldwide.” Members include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Mongolia, Republic of the Maldives, the UK and USA.