#SIF14 Conference, How Important is Internet Freedom?

#SIF14 Conference, How Important is Internet Freedom?

Stockholm Internet Forum 2014 (SIF14) “aims to deepen the discussions on how freedom and openness on the Internet promote economic and social development worldwide”. This was the third time that the Stockholm Internet Forum was organized by The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, .SE (The Internet Infrastructure Foundation) and The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The conference promotes ‘Internet Freedom’ and this year they have chosen to focus on the theme of “Internet – Privacy, transparency, surveillance and control”.

At SIF14 this year there was a participation of 450 people from around 90 different countries. The participants are from a wide range of fields with everything from business representatives and researchers to policy-makers. One of the guidelines the organizers have when enacting the conference is to invite at least 50% of participants from developing countries. This balance makess a large difference for the discussions about Internet Freedom, allowing many discussions of context and differences. Apart from trying to keep the majority of participants from developing countries, the conference organizers also tries to maintain an equal ratio between men and women, which they almost managed to achieve this year.

These aims (balance between genders and diversity through more than half of participants from developing countries) was used as an excuse for not inviting some of the most important names in Internet Freedom during this past year (Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum, Wikileaks). The “digital diplomacy” enacted was never direcly mentioned by organizers but despite the exlusion of these activists they were present there in spirit. Both through being mentioned as part of questions for every panel as well as the discussions between participants at the conference.

SIF14 takes up some controversial topics but still tries to maintain a delicate diplomatic balance by not inviting people who are people. “Iran, Cuba, and China remain among the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to internet freedom“, notably there where five Chinese participants present but none from Iran or Cuba. Another critique that was brought up was too much focus on Snowden, Appelbaum and Greenwald which in effect diminished the importance of other freedom fighters that have been put in jail for what they have done online. Inviting participants that are often vocal and strong around freedom on the net means that the conference needs a high ceiling of tolerance regarding topics and issues brought forward. The climate of debate was kept interesting with poignant and inquisitive questions that put some of the respondents in pressed situations.

The general mood of the audience seemed to be one of distrust against governments and companies gathering their information. The future was portrayed more dystopian than bright in many of the talks at SIF14. The Swedish government took an opposite view to this and saw “surveillance as an inevitability”. However, despite the conference talking about Internet freedom, Anna-Karin Hatt, ‘Swedish minister for information technology and energy’, wished to avoid this topic and said that we “need to put the debate on surveillance to a place where it belongs”. A necessity for control was not seen as inevitable by all participants, one of them lifted the thought that “if the internet is that important, why can’t we consider it a public good”.

One of the main themes for the conference was the topic of privacy. Since the last SIF conference the political climate in Europe has shifted considerably towards right extremist parties and the revelation of several surveillance schemes by governments has been made public. These changes shifts the previous attitude that cryptographic communication was needed only for the “arab spring” and countries without a functional democracy. There is always a need for some level of privacy (why do you wear clothes?) but the problem with surveillance is that it is a diffused practice. If mass surveillance would be perceived more personal then more people would object to what is happening. One example brought forward in order to make surveillance more concrete would be to see the effects of a person “if you had a personal stalker with a camera following you around everywhere”.

Personal data is a complicated matter and we can’t expect people to control all their own data. Malavika Jayaram said that she doesn’t “want to spend [her] whole life navigating privacy policies, I want privacy by default”. To conclude privacy can be considered to be about three main things: secrecy, anonymity and autonomy.

Featured image: CC-BY, woodleywonderworks