November 16, 2009

UN Criticized For Stifling Internet Censorship Debate

After disrupting a meeting of free-speech advocates in Egypt, the UN is being criticized for stifling debate about net censorship, BBC News reported.

During a recent session at the Internet Governance Forum in Egypt, the UN security demanded the removal of a poster promoting a book by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI). The poster mentioned Internet censorship and China's Great Firewall.

The UN claimed it had received complaints about the poster and that it had not been "pre-approved."

Ron Deibert, co-founder of the OpenNet Initiative told BBC News that if they are not allowed to discuss topics such as Internet censorship, surveillance and privacy at a forum on Internet governance, then what is the point of the IGF?

Deibert said the UN special rapporteur For Human Rights, who witnessed the removal, asked him to send a formal letter of complaint.

Meanwhile, video of the event made its way to YouTube, where a UN security guard was captured gathering up the poster from the floor and taking it away.

A UN spokesperson said that no UN official was involved in throwing the poster on the floor.

The spokesperson said: "Following repeated requests from the IGF Secretariat to remove the poster from the floor, a UN Security [guard] removed it from the floor and folded it undamaged. The organizers were told that they could pick it up anytime later that evening."

Complaints were sent to the UN about the poster from "delegates" and that it had not been "pre-approved for posting outside the allocated room".

A section of the banner read: "Internet censorship and surveillance are increasing in democratic countries as well as authoritarian states. The first generation of controls, typified by China's 'Great Firewall', are being replaced by more sophisticated techniques that go beyond mere denial of information."

Deibert claims that he asked "repeatedly" to see "rules or regulations governing this act" and they did not offer any, only referring to the 'objections of a member state'.

He even referred to an earlier incident where UN officials asked the ONI to stop distributing an invitation that "mentioned Tibet."

However, the UN said the invitation was advertising "a film on 'free Tibet', which was not mentioned in the original request for the room."

The UN released a statement saying: "The IGF Secretariat approved the request by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) for a room on the first day of the Forum to promote the book Access Controlled and a room was allocated for that purpose."

It also said officials from the Forum's Secretariat requested the organizers not to distribute the flyer or show the film as it was not what the room was requested for and that the flyers were concerned with a political issue not related to the Internet Governance Forum.

Deibert said the ONI agreed to stop handing out the flyers.

The UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum received criticism from human rights activists for holding the meeting in Egypt.

The group Reporters Without Borders said it was "surprised" by the decision and questioned the country's approach to free speech online.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) brings together government officials, businesses and net luminaries.


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