Isaiah Joo serves in the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State.
On March 8-9, 2013, the Office of eDiplomacy within the State Department's Bureau of Information Resource Management convened its tenth Tech@State conference, Tech@State: Internet Freedom. The event, held on the campus of George Washington University, examined the various techniques and methods that can be used to enhance, expand, and protect Internet freedom. Over 50 experts from within the U.S. government, international non-governmental organizations, non-profits, technology companies, and academic institutions convened to speak on this subject before an audience for approximately 300 attendees, as well as an online audience of hundreds more U.S. and foreign participants watching from several US embassies overseas.
In a welcoming address, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner reflected on the progress that the State Department had made on Internet freedom and offered thoughts on how new technologies and innovation have both positively and negatively impacted this work. Posner challenged the audience to redouble their efforts in the field of Internet freedom in three specific ways.
Posner first encouraged the audience to develop and promote a positive vision for the Internet and Internet governance. He stated the importance in democratizing the Internet and making it more accessible for people in all parts of the world. Posner’s second challenge was to ensure policy was both smart and adaptive in light of technological advancements in Internet freedom:
“As new technologies develop, governments must continue to ensure that relevant laws and policies are consistent with human rights, including privacy rights and the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
Finally, Posner called upon the participants to continue to commit to “the hard work of supporting people on the ground facing Internet repression.” He concluded by stating that Tech@State: Internet Freedom was an excellent opportunity to explore new ideas and collaborations, and to identify emerging needs in the field of Internet freedom where the State Department and others can help.
Andrew McLaughlin, the former Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States who from 2009 through 2011 was responsible for advising President Obama on the Internet, technology, and innovation policy, provided the keynote address. McLaughlin began by highlighting that threats to Internet freedom and cyber security come from both state and non-state actors today. He cited activities in Egypt, Syria, and China as examples where unconventional actors have emerged as both friends and opponents in the Internet freedom space. He argued that the most pressing issue facing Internet freedom today is surveillance, not only from governments, but also from private corporations. He also noted the troubling pattern of some democratic nations’ increasingly using online censorship targeting their citizens, and thereby restricting the freedom, privacy, and security of Internet use. McLaughlin concluded by arguing for an Internet freedom agenda he labeled “Internet Freedom 2.0,” which he stated should “focus on information restrictions imposed by companies and in democratic countries, information restrictions and limits on Internet freedom that are being advanced legislatively or otherwise in democratic countries.” McLaughlin also called for an examination of “the intersection between efforts to keep the internet secure and infrastructure implemented restrictions that can be used for ill.” [KK1]
Following the keynote address, Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, addressed the conference via video-tape. Stavros discussed the growing importance of Internet freedom and the EU’s fervent commitment to promoting freedom of expression on the Internet. Reflecting on the importance of privacy in the online world, Stavros argued that “if you have nothing to hide, you probably don’t have a life.”
After Stavros Lambrinidis’ remarks, a plenary panel of leading experts and implementers of Internet freedom reflected on the use of technology to foster and enhance open access to the Internet, as well as the use of technology to repress Internet freedom around the world. The panel included Dawn Nunziato, the Co-Director of George Washington University Law School’s Global Internet Freedom Project, Robert Guerra of the Citizen Lab, Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation, and Dlshad Othman, a 2012 U.S. Department of State Internet Freedom Fellow who has been at the center of a community supporting Internet freedom and digital security in in Syria. The panel’s insights highlighted the evolving and complex duality of technology, and formed the basis for discussions throughout the remainder of the conference.
Other conference sessions included highly engaging five-minute “ignite” presentations where presenters discussed new Internet freedom technologies, programs, and research, - as well as breakout panels that focused on how specific technologies are being utilized to facilitate Internet freedom. Topics included innovative anti-censorship tools, building safer web browsers, mobile security, and technologies supporting Internet publishers. To celebrate International Women’s Day, a breakout panel titled “Online Voices for All” focused on the methods and techniques needed to create an online environment that empowers women, LGBT, and other underrepresented groups via complete and unrestricted access to the Internet, and to provide these individuals and groups with the ability to express themselves and their identities fully and without censorship.
The second day of Tech@State: Internet Freedom was an unconference held at the George Washington University Law School. Participants created their own agendas, further considered issues presented during the first day, and explored topics like the mechanics of anti-circumvention tools and the various roles and responsibilities that both private technology corporations and governments have in the realm of promoting Internet freedom and regulating the Internet.
Most sessions from the first day of the conference, including the opening and closing keynote remarks, are available for online viewing. To learn more about this conference and ongoing efforts to ensure and expand Internet freedom around the world, please watch the proceedings from Tech@State: Internet Freedom conference here! Comments regarding the Tech@State: Internet Freedom conference are most welcome.
Tech@State, a component of the State Department’s 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, is a series of quarterly conferences, curated and run by the Office of eDiplomacy in the State Department's Bureau of Information Resource Management.
Designed to connect technologists to the goals of U.S. diplomacy and development through physical and virtual networks, Tech@State brings together leaders, innovators, U.S. diplomats, other government personnel and academics for a two-day interactive deep-dive to explore ways to incorporate new technologies and tools into diplomacy and development. Learn more about the Tech@State series by visiting our website and following @techATstate on Twitter.