Wikimedia Policy
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Wikimedia Policy

The “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” is a Good Start, But Now We Need Action

Satellite image of the globe with computer-code looking numbers coming off of it to give a very ‘digital world’ kind of vibe.
Planet Earth and artistic representation of cyberspace. Image by Piqsels, CC0, via Piqsels

Written by Wikimedia Foundation’s: Rjudhistari, Lead Public Policy Specialist (Asia); Kate Ruane, Lead Public Policy Specialist (USA); and Amalia Toledo, Lead Public Policy Specialist (Latin America & Caribbean).

The Wikimedia projects depend on thriving civic spaces online that foster free access and exchange of knowledge. That is why we have called on the governments of the world, time and again, to take immediate and bold action to implement policies that advance and protect the free and open internet. For these reasons, we were encouraged that on 28 April 2022, more than sixty countries — including Australia, Colombia, Japan, Kenya, Peru, Micronesia, Niger, United States, and those in the European Union — issued a Declaration for the Future of the Internet. The signatories unite around the belief that digital technologies can provide tremendous opportunities for the support of democracy, protection of human rights, promotion of sustainable development, and advancement of fundamental freedoms.

The Declaration sets out principles that all countries should follow in order to support a free, open, interoperable, and accessible internet. The Wikimedia Foundation commends the signatory governments, which voice their strong support for free expression and the exchange of free knowledge: essential requirements for the movement we serve. However, we equally recognize that many of the countries that led the drafting and launch of the declaration have failed to live up to its principles. Signatories such as the US (i.e., the main drafter), Australia, the UK, France, and so many others have enacted and engaged in policies and practices of surveillance that harm free expression, undermine privacy, and fail to protect human rights. The Foundation intends to hold these countries to their commitments.

To be clear, this Declaration could not come at a more critical time in the history of the internet and the development of digital technologies. Around the world, there are governments implementing repressive internet regulation and digital technologies that can cause harms both online and offline. Other governments, which are wrestling with competing priorities, are tempted to do the same. Some governments are also cracking down on the open internet, either shutting down connectivity or shutting off access to the outside world entirely. While some governments are trying to combat disinformation, others are weaponizing disinformation to suppress the exchange of free knowledge and suppress dissent. Many governments turn a blind eye to harmful business practices that contribute to many online and offline harms. There is no doubt that action is needed to combat these harms, especially the disinformation and internet interruptions that threaten the existence of the free knowledge movement we support. Equally important, however, is that governments recognize that part of the solution will be to support and protect civic spaces online where people can freely exchange knowledge, communicate, and come together to support and help one another.

Broadly, the signatories to the Declaration have committed to principles intended to foster societies where:

  • “Human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the well-being of all individuals are protected and promoted;
  • All can connect to the Internet, no matter where they are located, including through increased access, affordability, and digital skills;
  • Individuals and businesses can trust the safety and the confidentiality of the digital technologies they use and that their privacy is protected;
  • Businesses of all sizes can innovate, compete, and thrive on their merits in a fair and competitive ecosystem;
  • Infrastructure is designed to be secure, interoperable, reliable, and sustainable;
  • Technology is used to promote pluralism and freedom of expression, sustainability, inclusive economic growth, and the fight against global climate change.”

The Wikimedia Foundation strongly supports these goals. At the same time, it is important to note that we have a very long way to go toward living up to them. All of the signatory governments must immediately act and implement concrete actions to accomplish these goals — particularly those that concern protecting the privacy of communications and ensuring that attempts to combat harmful content sufficiently respect the right to free expression.

We offer below a few brief thoughts on what governments can do now to advance the commitments made in the Declaration.

Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

  • Protecting free expression while fighting disinformation. This commitment includes preserving the right to free expression while acting to increase the safety and security of the most vulnerable groups online, including women and children. Addressing disinformation and harmful content is a concern we share. However, simply requiring the removal of such content is unlikely to address its root causes and, in some cases, may cause more harms than intended. We encourage Declaration signatories to look to free knowledge projects like Wikipedia for examples of the ways in which community-based moderation can help to combat harmful content and disinformation. We also encourage signatories to expand efforts to combat disinformation and other harmful content beyond tools for censorship and regulating content moderation: for instance, to include digital literacy training, interoperability of services, and increased user controls.
  • Refraining from unlawful surveillance and invasions of privacy. We applaud this commitment, but note that many signatory countries are far from living up to this ideal. The Wikimedia Foundation sued the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), for example, because one of its surveillance practices seizes international text-based communications, infringing freedom of speech and association as well as protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. This and other similar surveillance practices massively invade privacy, and undermine trust worldwide in the safety and security of the internet. At a minimum, Declaration signatories must immediately commit to refrain from evading basic privacy protections. They should also stop purchasing personal information from unregulated data brokers. In the United States, this could be accomplished by enacting the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would prohibit US government entities from purchasing data from data brokers without meeting certain safeguards. All other countries should commit to similar restrictions as soon as possible. They should cease collecting data from internet communications in bulk. They should eliminate broad surveillance authorities and cease using dangerous technologies, like predictive policing systems and facial recognition.

A Global Internet

  • Refraining from engaging in internet shutdowns and from blocking or degrading access to lawful content. For example, despite the many and growing number of sanctions imposed against Russia for its government’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States granted a license that clarifies that these sanctions do not apply to providing telecommunications and internet services to people within Russia. To grant this license is a recognition of the importance of the internet as a means for the exercise of human rights, especially to ensure access to knowledge and information. In critical situations, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the need for access to the internet in order to exercise human rights is even more important. Other signatories should take similar measures.

Inclusive and Affordable Access to the Internet

  • Promoting inclusive and reliable access to the internet. We support this goal, and call upon these signatory countries to act immediately and ensure all people have equal access to the internet. Bold action will be key to dismantling systems of oppression that have long impeded equitable access to the internet on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, and disability. Any steps taken to ensure equal access must grapple with structural societal barriers head on.
  • Fostering multilingualism and diversity. Signatories commit to “foster greater exposure to diverse cultural and multilingual content, information, and news online.” We note that free knowledge projects and civic spaces where people are treated as full participants in the generation of knowledge are essential to the achievement of this goal. The Wikimedia Foundation stands ready to provide any assistance to increase the creation and exchange of diverse cultural content.

Trust in the Digital Ecosystem

  • Combating cybercrime and malicious cyber activity based in law and in accordance with international human rights law. Declaration signatories commit to combating cyber-enabled crime and malicious activity. However, while doing so they should also take care to refrain from abusing surveillance technologies and techniques, including dangerous ones such as facial recognition and bulk monitoring of social media, which harm human rights, degrade privacy, and chill free expression in their attempts to interrupt and investigate criminal activity.
  • Protecting individuals’ privacy and their personal data. Signatories commit to protecting the privacy of personal data. To truly achieve this goal, signatory governments must enact strong consumer privacy protections that rein in the abusive practices of many for-profit companies, which collect massive amounts of data and use it in unexpected — and sometimes harmful — ways without consent.
  • Protecting the confidentiality of electronic communications and information. There is no more effective way to achieve this goal than to support the deployment and use of end-to-end encrypted technologies. Declaration signatories should support encrypted services and refrain from hindering their development and use. Signatory governments must also be aware when other policy choices may impact privacy and end-to-end encryption, and work to ensure that privacy is protected even when addressing other harms. As the Wikimedia Foundation highlighted with our submission to the Australia’s government on the draft Basic Online Safety Expectations: Requirements focused on large for-profit social media platforms often fail to take into account community-driven platforms, and will disrupt their community-centered content moderation processes — like those that power Wikipedia. A focus on large platforms often incentivizes automated content detection, which entails broad content scanning that undermines encrypted messages, and encourages over-censorship in which content that is not harmful could be removed.

Multistakeholder Governance

  • Protecting and strengthening the multistakeholder system of internet governance, including infrastructure, technical protocols, and other related standards. We fully support that the Declaration signatories commit to maintaining the multistakeholder governance of the internet’s infrastructure, protocols, and standards, and will continue engagement with them in order to ensure so.

There is much to celebrate in the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. The Wikimedia Foundation is pleased to see so many countries making so many important commitments to advancing an internet that serves the public interest. These are just our first thoughts, and there will be more to come. However, it is clear that to truly fulfill these commitments, there are many actions that signatory countries must — and can already — take to reach the goals outlined by the Declaration. The Foundation looks forward to working with all signatory countries to promote and implement policies that achieve these goals, and to protect the free and open internet.

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