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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

Report of Freedom of Expression Seminar - Manchester, UK: 14-16 February 2007

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Mon, 2007-04-16 16:54.

About the seminar

This event’s character was shaped by the profile of the participants, who brought a diverse range of professional, cultural and personal experiences to the discussions. The seminar was hosted by the British Council, in the context of promoting inter-cultural dialogue. It set out to be exploratory rather than to develop shared programmes for action: it sought to give participants a framework for learning and for considering challenges in their own contexts. Discussions ranged widely within the framework of the event programme.

The context for discussions was set with presentations based on the Freedom of Expression Project’s own mapping research:

Key themes

Key themes emerged, through participants’ discussions and working groups, as crucial to debates about freedom of expression in the networked communications environment (NCE). While many issues overlap, they can be broadly grouped under the following headings.

Building knowledge

  • There’s a need to build knowledge and the evidence base about this developing environment. There are acknowledged gaps in the data, e.g. about: the non-English speaking on-line world; the realities of private ownership of the media as a measure of openness (Turkey, Yemen); the extent of cross-border international dialogue; blog content; internet use.
  • This poses challenges for policy making: distinguishing between real trends and ‘hype’. There’s a level of scepticism about some of the claims made for aspects of the NCE: e.g. the potential of blogs as a tool for social change.

Developing multi-disciplinary discussion and engagement

  • There is a recognition of the interconnected and multi-disciplinary nature of the threats and opportunities for freedom of expression. The challenge is in formulating discussions that reach beyond familiar ‘compartments’ (mobile phones, the internet, traditional media etc.).
  • In particular, debate about the control of the physical communications network and its connectivity provides a valuable new dimension to the issues (for participants from a non-technological background): a new appreciation of technology’s significance and of the need to develop their own knowledge and collaborations.
  • A key challenge is how to bridge the gap between ‘technologists’ and others concerned with the implications of technology. Who needs to learn whose language? How do we illustrate and communicate the implications of the fact that this is digital technology? How do we make alliances and involve the right players in discussions?

Respecting cultural, political and economic frameworks

  • A tension: many people are outside conversations happening in the West about technology and regulation. They need to join them but at the same time preserve cultural, political and economic autonomy (with particular reference to Middle East and Latin America)
  • The concept of freedom of expression is not always unproblematic or uncontested: there is some sense of this being a cultural imposition of the West (not necessarily amongst the participants, but in wider society). It brings different meanings and implications in different countries.
  • There’s a need to consider different global perspectives. Issues of concern (e.g. surveillance capabilities of technology) or models with some success (e.g. public service broadcasting) in certain regions may not transfer to countries where cultural norms are different and/or the technologies less developed.

Thinking through questions of authority and credibility

  • The internet interacts with and is complementary to traditional media; not necessarily an alternative. Citizen participation is enriching traditional media channels.
  • But there is still a need for high-quality journalistic analysis and interpretation. Where does authority derive from and what standards apply? Are bloggers self-appointed commentators?
  • There’s a need to consider the context of declining levels of trust, in authority and in the media. In some countries a paradox is emerging of more openness/plurality and less trust.

Understanding roles

  • The NCE is creating spaces for new roles. We need to understand their potential and limitations, e.g: motivated and less active users; citizen journalists in relation to traditional media; artists and creators of digital content.
  • The rules and norms of behaviour are not uniform, e.g. we need to consider the intentions and political circumstances of anonymity; it can be in the public interest or it can be dangerous.
  • The internet is a tool, neither benevolent nor malignant. It does not make human interaction and interpretation redundant. It is not itself an answer to problems with e.g. political disengagement or democratic deficits. Does it create an environment for civil society action or mobilise social forces that already exist?what already exists?
  • There’s an acknowledgement of the emergence of ‘internet elites’ or super-engaged users: if they do have a transformational capacity, how can we develop that? The challenge is for internet activists to connect with wider social movements. Person-to-person interactions will continue to matter.

Recognising negative as well as positive potential

  • There are many positive examples of technologies playing a role in mobilising civil action or exposing abuses (e.g. Abu Ghraib). Yet the NCE has the potential to exacerbate divisions in society, and to polarise groups towards extremes, e.g. of ideology. There are also numerous examples of participants opting out of on-line interaction as the arena of debate becomes a battlefield (e.g. Serbia), and concerns that conversations are being shaped by minorities (e.g. radical Islamists).
  • There’s a need to be wary of the potential for manipulation and infiltration by economic or political interests (e.g. Bosnian elections; ‘astroturfing’ - the mimicking of grassroots movements - by corporate lobbies).

Considering regulation and watchdog functions

  • There’s a recognition of the need to develop public oversight and regulation of the NCE to ensure access and a plurality of voices. Models for developing and delivering this will need to be sensitive to cultures and national contexts: how appropriate is a public service broadcasting model worldwide? what should the state’s role be in developing a ‘civic commons’ online, particularly where the political? distance between government and governed is great?
  • Need to consider the role that regulation can play in promoting access to devices and networks (e.g. significance of mobile phones in Africa) as well as the physical availability of bandwidth and spectrum.
  • At the content level, the potential for civil society monitoring or watchdog roles could be explored, in terms of freedom of expression responsibilities parallel to e.g. Human Rights Watch.

Tackling censorship

  • There is concern that self-censorship of content may be following similar patterns in the NCE as in traditional media (e.g. Middle East, China); but there is also optimism that in the longer term state censorship and monitoring might not be effective.
  • There’s a recognition of the need to build awareness and educate about the potential for indirect censorship and control embedded in: technologies (search engines; content blocking); ISPs; concentration of media; political agendas (surveillance post 9/11). Individuals need to be informed in order to be effective advocates for freedom of expression.

Analysing power and control

  • On control of content and intellectual property rights (IPRs): there is a need to explore imaginative ways to protect creativity, preserve cultural life and ensure public access to cultural and educational goods: shared subscriptions, new forms of licensing and copyright.
  • There is a need to consider states’ role in investing in technology to develop interaction with the public. The challenge is to insert social demands and safeguards into the technological discussions and specifications.
  • Freedom of information is central to empowering individuals as actors, but in developing democracies, the potential of legislation depends on civil movements to enforce and realise it. Debates about freedom of information, privacy and the response to states’ and private companies’ data collection on individuals, are in different stages of development globally. Their significance is perceived differently where there are other pressing rights agendas (e.g. police violence in Argentina).
  • In summary: to understand opportunities and challenges for freedom of expression, we need to understand power and control. We need to analyse who controls and regulates: the physical communications layer? connectivity? applications? content?

Next steps

By the end of the seminar, participants expressed that they had gained a better understanding of the ways new communications can both challenge and provide opportunities for freedom of expression. The participants agreed that the seminar acted as a starting point from which to further discuss the issues and start to formulate creative approaches to harnessing the potential of new communications technologies. The next step for them was to assess how the issues discussed play out in their own countries, and to consider what they can do in their own professions to help build a communications environment that promotes freedom of expression. Global Partners will help facilitate this by encouraging further discussion via its website, and through bringing more perspectives, ideas and opportunities for collaboration to the table through future seminars in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Download a pdf of this report and a list of seminar participants by clicking on the link below.

Manchester seminar report and programme.pdf95.37 KB