A three-day UN-sponsored internet talking shop has kicked off in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) brings together 1,500 delegates from around the world to discuss issues such as identity protection online, how content can be controlled and the role of governments in managing the internet. At the same time, Azeri activists and human rights organisations are using the gathering to draw attention to the lack of freedom in the host country itself.
In the run-up to the conference, the European Union has been emphasising the importance of an open internet. Some people are even calling uncensored access to the internet a human right.
Dutch Europarliamentarian Marietje Schaake, who has been awarded the title of 'Most Wired' MEP, said at a preparatory event: “An open and free internet is an enormous chance for everyone in the world. “We shouldn't look at internet freedom in terms of nations, but in terms of values.”
Non-western countries are critical of the fact that internet companies and institutions organising and managing cyberspace are dominated by the United States. Kenyan researcher Alice Munyua told the British paper The Guardian that Western dominance is one of the biggest challenges for developing nations. "There is a feeling that we’re not able to participate or contribute effectively because of our lack of capacity, skills and resources. So there's a digital divide in terms of access, but also in using the internet for our own development."
Fighting cyber crime or spying on citizens
Under the flag of 'democratising the internet', some members of the specialised UN Telecommunications Agency want to expand its power to include the internet or found a new UN body overseeing internet activities.
But there are also fears that Russia, China and several Middle Eastern countries will push forward proposals to gain more government control over the internet, threatening the basic principles of openness. Russia, for instance, is seeking to impose more global regulation to 'counter terrorism and cybercrime'.
Cyber crime is often cited as a reason to increase the authorities' ability to patrol the internet. The Netherlands is usually known as an advocate of internet freedom, but it came under fire last week from local and international civil rights organisations because proposed new regulations would give Dutch police broad powers to hack computers both at home and abroad. Or “spy on everyone”, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it in a statement.
Azeri journalists jailed
Just as they did in May of this year during the Eurovision Song Contest, Azeri activists are seizing on increased international media attention to point out human rights breaches in their home country. In a report issued last week, Human Rights Watch stated that “the government of Azerbaijan has a poor and worsening record on freedom of expression, online and offline”.
Several political activists, human rights defenders and journalists have been jailed, and last week the Azeri parliament adopted amendments increasing fines up to thousands of euros for 'unsanctioned public gatherings'. In an open letter to the Azerbaijani government published in British newspaper The Independent, activist Emin Milli says, “you once suggested in a speech that the internet is free in Azerbaijan. I am sure you will repeat this message at this global forum. It is true that people in Azerbaijan are free to use the internet, but it is also a fact that they can be severely punished afterwards for doing so.”