Tuesday, May 3, 2011
On 3 May 2011, World Press Freedom Day, Birgitta Jonsdottir gave this years Press Freedom lecture: Are we citizens or users?

Birgitta Jonsdottir
3 May 2011, World Press Freedom Day

Are we citizens or users?

Recent attempts by the Department of Justice in the USA to have my personal backend information handed over from Twitter have given me a reason to be deeply worried about the lack of rights social media users have. These worries were amplified with the rulings from the court in Virginia handling my case.

Before my Twitter case I didn't think much about what rights I would be signing off when clicking on accept user agreement with online companies. The text is usually lengthy in a legal language most people don't understand, so I think it is safe to say that nearly all of us that click that button do so in blind faith that somehow the legalities of the Internet don't apply in the real world. It is simply virtual until case is made in the real world.

What I have learned about my lack of rights in the last few months is of concern and calls for actions to raise people’s awareness about their legal rights and ways to improve legal guidelines and framework online.

Many of us who use the Internet, be it to write emails, browse its growing landscape, mining for information, connecting with others or use it to organize ourselves in various groups of likeminded, are not aware of that our behavior online is being monitored. Profiling has become a default with companies such as Google and Facebook. These companies have huge databases recording our every move within their landscape in order to make ads directed to us. For them we are consumers to push goods at, so they can sell ads in a clever business model. For them we have so far not been regarded as citizens with civic rights. This notion needs to change. To be fair, I guess no one really knew where we were heading in the beginning. Not us the users, and not the companies hogging and gathering our personal information for profit. Very few of us had the imagination that governments that claim to belong to democracies would invade our online privacy with no regard to rights we are supposed to have in the real world. We would look to China and typical totalitarian states and expect them to violate the free flow of information and human rights online, but not our democratic governments.

I guess the problem and the dilemma we are facing is that there is no proper standard, no basic laws in place that deal with the fundamental question: are we to be treated as consumers or citizens online? There is no international charter that says we should have the same rights as citizens in the real world. Our legal systems are slow compared to the speed of development online. With the social media explosion many people have put into databases very sensitive information about themselves and others without knowing that they have no rights to defend themselves against attempts by governments to obtain their personal data in the countries this information is stored. According to the ruling of the judge in my Twitter case, we have fortified those rights when we agree to the terms and conditions by the company hosting our data if is kept on servers in the USA. We have to rely on, for example, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter to look out for our interests. It might not always be in their interest to look out for us. I want to stress that Twitter did fight for the interests of their users in my Twitter case by going to court to unseal the document demanding them to hand over personal backend information about their users. The document Twitter managed to unseal stated that they were to hand over this information without our knowledge within three days. If they had not managed to unseal the documents we would not know how far DoJ is reaching to get their hands on our data and how difficult it is go guard our privacy in the borderless legal jungle. I am for example not a USA citizen and because of that I am not protected by the 1st and 4th amendment in the USA constitution. Users from the USA are protected in the same case by these fundamental rights.

The reason we humans make international treaties and declarations about human rights is because somewhere along the line we agreed that certain rights are sacred and universal. We need to make the same principles applicable to our human rights online as they are offline. These two worlds have fused together and there no way to define them separated anymore.

Media Morphing into Cyberspace

The media is in transition – morphing from the traditional format into the online media format. Most people want to be able to access news online and usage of traditional media is shrinking day by day. The mainstream media has not figured out how to make profit or how to survive online without cutting off many of the services we have learned to depend on, such as investigative journalism and in depth analyzing of complex matters in simple easy to grasp terms. In this fragile morphing stage the media is faced with increased challenges from international legal firms that specialize in gagging the media. More out of court settlements are occurring every day. Super injunctions, prior restraints, and attempts to alter our historical records online is on the rise. Criminalization of whistle blowing and filtering of online content is also of great concern.

Another concern is online profiling. Let’s say I am a researcher or a journalist and I am doing a research on child pornography or terrorists, my every search online is recorded and this search attached to my online profile, this profile can become a serious threat to my person if handed over to authorities that might have a thorn in my side for stories or research that is not to their likening.

We have to regard the portion of our personal history online as sacred as it is offline. Many of us that use the internet a lot, have a large history, a large portion of us online. That has to be protected by the same regulations for privacy as for example when it comes to entering our homes or obtaining permissions to tap our phones.

I also find it important to shed light on the fact that USA authorities have reached so far in their attempts to find a way to criminalize WikiLeaks that they are demanding backend information from a Member of Parliament from sovereign nation. This is a whole can of worms that I am not sure that the USA wants to open. What about the USA senators who want to apply themselves in the international field of human rights issues. Abuse of human rights in for example China, Tibet or North Korea. Can USA authorities protect their own Senators from demands of probing into their personal data online from China? I don't think so.

Members of parliaments all over the world are encouraged to use social media to be in touch with their voters. Many people don't understand that sending a message on Facebook or via Twitter or gmail is not an official pathway. The voters might send sensitive information about themselves to their MP's online. With court ruling in favor of exposing this information to a foreign government – the line of privacy and sovereignty of individuals in cyberspace has taken a new direction that has to be address somehow.

There has to be a debate on global and local scale on what should remain secret or sacred and not put into public or private circulation. Education and clarification on what rights individuals have with social media and other data gatherers. Some social media companies guard their users – while others don't – thus a legal guideline is needed. Until then we simply have to trust it is in the best interest of the social media companies to watch our back.

A tip to authorities that don't want to let go of the big brother tendencies on the cyber citizen, it is a lot easier to migrate in cyberspace then it is in the real world. People despite the new voyeurism trends don't like to have their privacy invaded. Massive exodus of information refugees might flee from the USA hosted companies if their rights are not respected, to countries that are not as hostile.

Merging the Online with the Offline world

The reason why I felt so at home online when I discovered it in 16 years ago was the fact that I am born on a small island at the edge of the world with only 315,000 people sharing it with me. My island has natural borders, with the roaring Atlantic Ocean creating a shield against the rest of the world. That shield can cause an intense sense of cultural and personal claustrophobia.

One of the prime influences in shaping a profound understanding that I don’t belong to any one nation, that I belong to all of this planet was my participation in co-creating the landscape of the new world online. In 1995, I started working with the shapers and pioneers in the internet landscape in Iceland and beyond. One of my passions was to merge creative spaces: music, poetry, and art all bleed well together in the multi-creative space of the internet. But that was not enough. After all, this was a new world, without borders and without limitations, other than the limitations of our imagination. Likeminded people found each other, no matter where they happened to be located in the real world. We could work together — trans-border, trans-culture, transgender, transparty, trans-race. It was a world of transparency, almost beyond duality. Borders are just an optical illusion. It was as close to paradise as I could get in this human vessel. It was almost spiritual; it was as if the collective consciousness had taken on tangible shape in a virtual world that was influencing the real world at an increased speed every day. My dream was that this world we created with the free flow of ideas, information, and understanding could manifest itself outside the virtual.

The internet has given us the tools to empower ourselves in the real world, with knowledge beyond the cultural conditioning we acquire within our own culture. The internet has given us the tools to work together beyond traditional borders, and it has allowed us to create real windows into the real world that reach far beyond our cultural beliefs about other countries. However, this world beyond borders is now under serious threat, a threat that is growing at an alarming rate. I have seen the development of the internet since its early visual stage. I have seen how it can improve and enrich the quality of life. I have also seen how those who hold the reins of power in our world have discovered that the internet needs to be tamed, like the rest of the world, and brought under their control — to be industrialized in the same manner that other media have been brought under control by industry and the state. My last hope of gathering momentum in stopping this development is through the free spirit within the wilderness of the internet — where the conditioning and the reigns of control have not been able to tame the free spirits who roam with the hackers’ manifesto singing in their hearts.

I have seen new stories and new myths emerge out of the language of the internet, where people speak together through Google and translate new languages; and I have seen the library of Alexandria materialize with free knowledge and torrents of information wash upon shores otherwise impossible to reach. I have seen the alchemy of stories take on real shape in a collective online effort; and the truth seeped into the real world. As the untouchables try to hide their secrets for the chosen few, those secrets keep spilling out in a whirlwind of letters in every digital corner of the world. They sweep through the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Iceland, Hungary, Libya, and the United States — confirming that the rumors are true: “corpocracy” is the new global empire, and it thrives in local corruption.

The internet has given people access to information that should remain in the public domain; yet it is a trending policy to make everything secret by default, without a consensus about the process of deciding what needs to be kept secret. Transparency and open access to information are the only real pressures on governments to remain true democracies. If you don’t have freedom of information and expression, you are not living in a democracy; rather it’s the rule of dictatorship with many heads. Many people don’t realize that if we won’t have freedom of information online, we won’t have it offline.

People feel that mainstream media has failed them and thus they turn to alternative media online and the culture of cracking secrets is on the rise and finally the old dream of WikiLeaks of crowdsourcing is becoming a reality around various leaks both from WikiLeaks and for example from Anonymous. I want to stress that i am shocked by the lack of courage by the USA media in relation to WikiLeaks. Shocked because WikiLeaks simply acted as the middle man – the save box in cyberspace that received the brown envelope from the source and handed it over to the media. Shocked because of the ignorance from the media, for it's obvious to me that if WikiLeaks will be taken down in any shape or form or the people behind it, it will be harder for the media to stay on a firm ground when under attack for publishing leaked material from whistle-blowers and secret sources. I feel there has been too much focus on the people behind WikiLeaks, not the content they have provided. This has taken the focus off the historical significance of the leaks and created something of a frenzy around sensationalism of personality clashes. If we allow ourselves to step away from the persons and look into the achievements of WikiLeaks it is obvious that because of them we have issues of information freedoms online on the agenda, all over the world, and of course the issue of whistle-blowing as a option when witnessing criminal behavior in the public, military and private sectors.

The culture of free flow of information is still strong online, and every attempt to block, hinder, or erase information is met with increased creativity. Yet those of us who care for freedom of information have to step-up our quest to remove the gags, tear down the firewalls, and dissolve the invisible filters. The telecom companies have gained incredible power and tend to cave-in under government pressure, as we saw happen in Egypt in early 2011. We also saw Amazon cave-in under political pressure and kick WikiLeaks off its cloud. Corporation and specialized law-firms have figured out the best countries to use as a medium to attack and gag journalists, writers, publishers, and the rest of the media because of weak laws to protect the media. They have become so good at it that important stories have vanished from the public domain. Modern book-burnings occur every day in every library in the world by a click of a button. Libel tourism, prior restraints, gag orders, out-of-court settlements, and tampering with our online historical records are altering our current history in real time and robbing us of the possibility to be informed about the activities of the most influential corporations and politicians in our world. We have to do everything in our power to stop this development — through lawmaking and creative resistance. The “Icelandic Modern Media Initiative” (IMMI) is an attempt to raise the standard and upgrade the current legal framework to strengthen freedom of information, speech, and expression in our world. The creation of a safe haven for freedom of information has to start somewhere – Iceland is a good place because we learned the hard way the destructive nature of lack of transparency and where culture of secrecy can lead us. People yearn for change and thus this crisis can be used for something that will for sure be beneficial for us and hopefully for the rest of the world.

Finally I want to bring up the issue of Rop Gonggrijp. Me and Rop are both within the radar of the DoJ in USA because of our role in post-production of the video known as Collateral murder, showing among other horrors the murder of a wounded man and the people trying to help him in Iraq. As far as I am concerned we have done nothing illegal – we contributed to the release of material that showed without any doubt a war crime that no one has been held accountable for. There are serious attempts to criminalize those that helped get this material out in the public domain not the people responsible for the killing. One of the universal laws in most places in our world is: if you witness a crime it is your civic duty to report it. The same applies to war crimes. And it is by no standards a crime to blow the whistle on war crimes.

When I got the news about my Twitter case and it became a news story all over the world, the Icelandic Parliament got behind me openly, and so did the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Interior Affairs. I am a parliamentarian and thus I have a better diplomatic shield then Rop, thus Rop should get a even greater support and shield from his own country then I am getting in Iceland. His actions in this case are very much the same as of any person on the floor in any media outlet in Holland or Iceland. Perhaps because of the historical ties Holland has with the USA, the authorities in Holland could play a central role in encouraging US authorities to hold those accountable for the war crimes witnessed in this video. At least the authorities in Holland could pledge that they will protect their citizen without conditions, such as the Icelandic authorities have done in my case. Holland has always been a country I have looked upon with awe for their courage to create common sense laws around very controversiall issues, thus i would expect to see common sense applied in this very case.