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2012-13 Theme: Digital Freedom and Its Limits
Submitted by NHS on 1 August 2012
"Digital Freedom and Its Limits" is the theme for the 2012-2013 Challenge. It explores what policies governments or other groups should adopt to enhance the potential of digital technology to benefit individuals and societies. It also encourages debates about the limits on internet freedom and covers issues related to social networks, privacy, child safety, freedom, censorship, democracy, transparency, national security and much more.
To launch the new theme, we offer you the following resources:
1. A Thematic Summary (below), which provides a brief background to some of the issues open for exploration in the new Challenge;
2. A Background Paper on the topic which provides additional depth and context; and
3. Related Links and Reading Materials, a list of sources for further study and reflection.
Please begin by reading the following overview of the theme and make sure you register to Join the Challenge!
Digital Freedom and Its Limits
What policies should governments or other groups adopt to enhance the potential of digital technology to benefit individuals and societies, domestically or internationally, and what limits on Internet freedom are legitimate or desirable?
The rise of the Internet and other digital media in recent years has transformed the global information ecosystem. The way that both private and public information is shared, transmitted and distributed has fundamentally changed. New technologies offer extraordinary new possibilities for political mobilization, as seen most recently in the role of social media in the revolutions in the Arab world, and opened novel ways for people to exercise their freedom of expression. New communications technologies have given people around the world – both in authoritarian states and in more democratic societies - an unprecedented ability to communicate information that governments would prefer to keep hidden. Incidents like the release of US government cables by WikiLeaks show how a few technologically-connected individuals sharing a common goal are able to transmit classified information to millions of people.
At the same time, however, the Internet and other digital media have been a mixed blessing for advocates of popular empowerment. Undemocratic regimes have developed sophisticated techniques for restricting access to digital media and for conducting surveillance on activists. The difficulty of controlling information online has downsides as well as benefits. Terrorists and other criminals have used the Internet for recruitment, incitement and other purposes, but some people charge that government attempts to restrict these activities have provided a pretext for censorship. While access to the Internet is expanding rapidly, it remains unevenly distributed – giving rise to fears of a “digital divide”.
In its early years, the Internet evolved in an open and seemingly unregulated way. However, as more and more users have come online, questions of Internet policy and regulation have become increasingly relevant. How should the right to privacy be understood in a digital world, so that human dignity is properly protected but innovation and national security are not threatened? Given the extraordinary power of global companies like Vodafone, Facebook and Google, what public obligations should they accept, and how far should governments be able to control or regulate their activity? The connectivity of the Internet gives a new potential both for individuals to distribute information and for companies or governments to monitor their activity – what are the right standards to use in defining an appropriate balance in these areas?
This year’s Global Debate and Public Policy Challenge invites participants to explore the policy questions raised in this cutting-edge area, at a time when global policy makers are grappling with the same questions. Among the specific areas which participants might choose to focus on are: the use of foreign policy to support the empowerment of citizens using digital tools in closed societies; developing a way of restricting the spread and use of surveillance or blocking technology; designing freedom of expression regimes for digital media that allow legitimate debate but prevent security threats; finding better ways to protect privacy online; establishing rules or guidelines for digital media companies to comply with requests by governments to share information or to restrict access; and defining standards for official transparency in a digital world.