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IGF – Creating an Industry Playbook to Protect Free Speech

I’m in Rio de Janeiro this week for the second Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations conference created to help more people –especially in the developing world—do more on the Net. Yesterday I was asked to represent NetChoice on a panel about upholding human rights online.  That is, how can internet companies protect freedom of expression when governments try to censor our customers’ content and ask us to reveal the identity of users whose online communications are deemed offensive.

That’s a tough question, since governments who oppose free expression usually also have the power to shut down companies, jail employees, and cut-off all access to our websites and applications.

Our panel explored ideas ranging from compliance to defiance and a few in between.  One idea I like to create a ‘playbook’ of realistic tactics online companies can use to effectively push back on government demands for removing content or revealing user information Center for Democracy and Technology is working on this along with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and free expression advocates like Amnesty International.

At an international gathering like this, I often put things in terms of the world’s most popular game — football (or soccer to us Americans).  Think of the soccer coach as a provider of online services like email, hosting, blogs, and social networking sites.  The players are the customers and users trying to express themselves while living in a particular country.   The referees here represent the government.

Naturally, the coach wants his players to be aggressive and play with abandon, but not to provoke a whistle or a red card.  But it’s tough to know how or when these referees will make unpredictable judgment calls for things like dangerous play or persistent infringement.  And these referees have the power to shut-down the entire game if players are showing too much ‘free expression’. 

The principles discussed on our panel are like a playbook to help a coach step-in and aggressively argue a referee’s call, to appeal a player suspension, or even move the game to another field.   There’s even a section of this playbook on how to lobby for changes to the rules of the game.

We made some progress on making this playbook into something that online companies and free expression advocates can both embrace.  Thing is, the advocates seem to want more than companies can give in a few key areas, like how to monitor and review compliance.  But there’s good reason to find a compromise, since we all have an interest to have our players on the field and keep this game going.

–Steve DelBianco