We continue to face many challenges related to guaranteeing the exercise of rights and making the society of knowledge a reality…
At the end of last year, the Observatory on Regulation, Media, and Convergence (Observacom) conducted a consultation in Latin America in order to receive input on the study of “Internet universality.” The exercise, which was conducted at the request of UNESCO Communications Council for Latin America, was meant to enrich the discussions that would take place in 2015 as part of the Post-2015 Information Society Agenda.
The survey was answered by 102 people including experts, academics, and representatives of organizations that promote and protect freedom of expression in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The tool used was developed by UNESCO Paris and consisted of four blocks of questions regarding issues related to access to information, knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and ethical aspects of the information society.
Results of the Latin America Consultation
The paragraphs that follow present a very brief summary of some of the issues addressed in the survey, which generally show that there are still many lacks in public policy and synchronization of standards regarding the use of the Internet and the guarantee of the rights to freedom of information and expression. Some issues are particularly complex because they reveal contradictions between the rights or new situations for which the many discussions do not yet have fully convincing answers, such as the right to be forgotten or retention of data by companies and governments, which represent challenges that must be addressed at the global level so that the information society may be an inclusive reality of material exercise of rights.
Freedom of expression and the right to information still present serious delays in Latin America, which directly impacts use of the Internet as a technological platform that offers enormous opportunities to make them viable.
Starting with Basics: Access to Information
In regard to questions related to the field of access to information and knowledge, the lack of laws and policies guaranteeing access to public information is an important barrier for these components. Many governments do not yet make information regarding their institutions and work available to the public. As such, a policy of open government is necessary to access governmental information in a practical way.
Most of the countries in the region present profound delays in regard to connectivity. This means that the guarantee of access to information also involves developing infrastructure and spectrum management policies so that most of the population can access broad band and Internet. While some countries in the region have legal frameworks that recognize the right to access information technologies as a right of societies, this does not occur in practice.
As per the principle of universal access, that is, rights of equality and non-discrimination, regulatory mechanisms must be established –which include price structures, universal service requirements, and licensing agreements- in order to promote broad access to the Internet, including at-risk sectors and remote rural areas.
In the responses to the survey, net neutrality was identified as a priority for governments to guarantee and impose limits on companies. It is one of the issues to be addressed by regulators and companies that provide services given that tensions are rising between the defense of broader freedom of information online and the pressure of competition in the different markets. In that sense, the regulations on net neutrality must require internet service providers to be transparent in the practices that they use to manage traffic or information.
Measures used to block content or applications could be used to control or limit the dissemination of especially protected discourses or those that have a presumption of protection. Some governments have used them to hide key information of public interest or quiet dissent from opposition groups or the people. In addition to governmental standards and policies, there is a need to promote the responsibility of search engines to guarantee net neutrality as well as the creation of independent, universal, non-commercial search engines that are respectful of cultural diversity.
Opposition of Rights
As occurs offline, the right to freedom of expression often comes up against other fundamental rights in the online world. Many consultation respondents were especially emphatic about the need to recover the standards established by international agencies to promote and protect freedom of expression in order to address new challenges of freedom of expression on the Internet. While they recognize that some situations involve special circumstances, the respondents suggested that the guidelines set in various agreements and their interpretation by the different agencies should be the guide for both governments and private entities.
Any Internet regulation should be reviewed in light of international standards on freedom of expression from a systemic digital perspective that involves broad participation of the sectors involved, especially civil society. Brazil’s Civil Internet Framework is considered a good practice that should be observed by governments.
In that sense, there is a concern over legislation or policies that involve surveillance, data retention, and intervention in communications based on supposed protection of national security or crime fighting. In some cases, these policies leave a very broad margin for interpretation and threaten privacy and the protection of personal data. In addition, these practices significantly inhibit freedom of expression, as Internet users may limit their expression if they feel that they are being monitored. It is important for legislation on this topic to establish judicial oversight and other safeguards in order to keep these measures from being used improperly for spying on dissidents or other improper conduct.
In regard to the previous point and in order to avoid censorship on the Internet, it is also important to protect the opportunity to exercise freedom of expression anonymously through the Internet, as restricting that right may cause intimidation and limit freedom of expression.
The right to be forgotten, which was recognized for the first time by the European Union Court and has been imitated by courts and regulatory agencies elsewhere, must be handled with special care. It has the potential to go against the right to information by restricting information of public interest in cases linked to corruption, crimes, etc. The necessary safeguards must be established in order to avoid restricting the right to information through the application of the right to be forgotten.
Another barrier to fully reaching a society of knowledge is related to intellectual property. There is ongoing tension around limiting certain contents and applications in order to protect intellectual property, especially that of large companies, which sometimes clashes with citizen demands for guaranteeing freedom of information. The majority of the proposals that have been presented aim to increase the flexibility of measures for defending intellectual property such that governments can balance the interests of large companies and the rights of the majorities to enjoy the right to information.
The trend that exists in several countries in the region to adjust their legal standards or public policies in the area of the Internet to reflect the contents of international trade agreements deserves special mention. The public is generally not allowed to access the agreements’ contents or take part in the discussion, and it is important for multilateral agencies that protect and promote freedom of expression to support the issuing of standards that mitigate the tension between these two rights.
The challenge that governments are facing goes beyond infrastructure. It also involves implementing policies that ensure digital literacy not only in regard to access the information necessary for the development of at-risk populations, but also so that the production of local content can be promoted and strengthened. This allows for the generation of more culturally and linguistically appropriate content, as well as content segmented for different age groups. One of the key points for facing these challenges involves correcting the lack of studies, indicators, and statistics on these sectors in regard to their situation to substantive access to the Internet. Government agencies that work in the field of education must have specific digital literacy plans for both formal and informal education sectors.
Like the region’s traditional media sector, the Internet in Latin America is very concentrated, which seriously limits freedom of expression. Centralization of the Internet in the hands of a small group of entities has led to control of information through practices such as the indexing of contents by large intermediaries such as Google. This concentration is also observed in Internet service providers or operators, which inhibits competition and generates expensive, poor quality services.
There are also government Internet service monopolies that allow content to be filtered when there is no legislation that protects net neutrality, and this practice may give way to censorship. Control of Internet services by political powers opens the door to the possibility that they may filter content that criticizes the work of the government or brings to light corruption or omission by the State. Content that is uncomfortable for political authorities tends to be censored.
The centralization/concentration of the Internet with stakeholders in convergence dominate over 80% of the flow of information through the Internet. The business concentration of telecommunications services providers reproduces the scenario seen in the media in the past but with different stakeholders. As such, there is a need to promote the creation of local contents and to be aware of efforts by large corporations to hoard digital identity mechanisms such as domain names.
Like the audiovisual sector, regulatory agencies that oversee Internet services must have enough independence from economic and governmental powers in order to protect freedom of expression so that their work can be insulated from undue pressure by the market or specific governments.
The Post-2015 Agenda
We still face many challenges when it comes to ensuring the exercise of rights and making the society of knowledge a reality. In this sense, efforts by agencies like UNESCO to create guidelines for all of the stakeholders involved will require much more than good will. The agenda that will be discussed this year will be crucial at the global and regional levels.