Privacy and censorship, security and freedom – Part two

Seeking the right balance in today’s and future networks

Can you really hide online?
Methods exist to try and hide the origin of activity via the Internet online, as well as through other communications. But in most cases, people are not as anonymous online as they think – or hope – they are. There are several elements in the average person’s online presence that are beyond his or her control, instead being managed by, for example, the service provider. We tend to leave digital traces wherever we visit on the Internet, and these can be followed by government authorities or commercial interests. By putting together these patterns of activity, a quite detailed picture of your habits and interests can be compiled — for legitimate or illicit reasons, and likely unbeknown to you.

Some jurisdictions have taken measures to strengthen users’ control of their privacy by, for instance, requiring websites to clearly seek permission for cookies to be gathered that could track users’ activity. Further ways could be considered to bring the public into the process of controlling online identities. However, there is no international consensus on this topic.  

On the table at WCIT-12
Certain issues that are on the table at WCIT-12 could be relevant to the debate, such as methods of improving cybersecurity. As the Internet expands, the issue of cybersecurity is of growing importance – not just to individuals bothered by spam or subject to phishing attacks, but also for communities as a whole in a world where vital infrastructure is increasingly interconnected and reliant on information networks. However, better protection of cybersecurity might imply less personal privacy and the restriction of some online behaviour, either within borders or when an activity is allowed in one jurisdiction but not in another.

Discussions of quality of service and net neutrality could also have a bearing. A “two-tier” Internet could be said to limit access to communications and thus freedom of expression. Gaining attention in this area too has been one proposal to WCIT-12 concerning telecommunication origin identification, or “caller ID” for short. The conference will consider whether the ITRs should include a provision that the originator of an international communication should always be identified, subject to national laws on privacy. Doing so would help prevent fraudulent misuse of numbering resources and make it easier to track criminals or terrorists, for instance. It would also reduce individual privacy. Which should take precedence? 

There is no easy answer. With the aim of achieving consensus, WCIT-12 must take into account the views of up to 193 countries (ITU’s Member States), as well as consulting industry and other stakeholders. Although the Internet is in one sense borderless, it operates on infrastructure that crosses a multiplicity of sovereign authorities and commercial domains. The Internet is not a “no man’s land” where total freedom reigns. In attempting to harmonize rules of behavior in that space, achieving a balance between security and liberty is difficult. But it is a challenge that potentially affects all of us who use modern communications as citizens of the world.

This, in essence, is what WCIT-12 is all about – an impartial forum to debate and reach agreement on some of the most critical issues of our time.

By Paul Conneally
Head, Communications and Partnership Promotion, ITU

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