WHEN dozens of countries refused to sign a new global treaty on internet governance in late 2012, a wide range of activists rejoiced. They saw the treaty, crafted under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as giving governments pernicious powers to meddle with and censor the internet. For months groups with names like Access Now and Fight for the Future had campaigned against the treaty. Their lobbying was sometimes hyperbolic. But it was also part of the reason the treaty was rejected by many countries, including America, and thus in effect rendered void.
The success at the ITU conference in Dubai capped a big year for online activists. In January they helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation, best known by the acronym SOPA, in America’s Congress. A month later, in Europe, they took on ACTA, an obscure international treaty which, in seeking to enforce intellectual-property rights, paid little heed to free speech and privacy. In Brazil they got closer than many would have believed possible to securing a ground-breaking internet bill of rights, the “Marco Civil da Internet”. In Pakistan they helped to delay, perhaps permanently, plans for a national firewall, and in the Philippines they campaigned against a cybercrime law the Supreme Court later put on hold.
Debate and dissent over the issues raised by the spread of information technology are not new. In the 1990s civil-liberties groups, including the pioneering Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), campaigned against the Communications Decency Act, part of which was eventually overturned by America’s Supreme Court. Today every corner of the digital universe has its own interest group: consumer groups defend online privacy; hackers reject far-reaching software patents; researchers push for open access to scientific journals online; defenders of transparency call on governments to open their data vaults—or take the opening into their own hands.
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