Jo Glanville (of Index on Censorship) visited the University of East Anglia today, for an event organised by the UEA Law School and media@uea. These are my notes (started handwritten, typed up later, no direct quotes). For me, it was an interesting end to a day that started with a first year lecture (constitutional law) on the history of freedom of expression, as Jo’s talk focused on the future, with the title “The net effect: the limits of Internet freedom“. She started by introducing the work of Index on Censorship, including its development from a focus on writers and censorship to a particular present concern with policy and reform. In this context, the recent speech by Hillary Clinton – her second on Internet freedom – was interesting, not just for the vision it set out but also how it differed from the simultaneous attempt to subpoena Twitter in respect of user information pertaining to Wikileaks. Interestingly, this was discussed in the context of the link (rather than the opposition) between freedom of expression and privacy. Twitter had ‘stood up’ for the user in this case and had challenged a gag order, but would others do the same? Another example of an attempt to resist censorship was the proposed judicial review of the Digital Economy Act brought by BT and TalkTalk.

However, there are other moves towards interference with communications, such as the return of the wiretap/intercept/CALEA debates in the US. In this context, she paid particular tribute to the work of Chris Soghoian. In the UK, interception of communications seems to have returned as an issue with the Coalition (despite promises), and the future of RIPA (interception) remains unclear – a particular issue given that the number of warrants in the UK and the US appears to be the same per year, despite the different sizes.

Regarding use of the Internet, one thing to note from Wikileaks is the power wielded by the likes of PayPay, Amazon and Visa, particularly if they have been influenced by the US Government. In the UK, the DCMS is now discussing ‘blocking’ with ISPs (for legal pornographic content on the grounds of the protection of children), but this has many problems, such as who decides and what grounds. We have already seen the Wikipedia/Internet Watch Foundation problem of over-blocking in the narrower context of the current IWF remit.

Jo also discussed a range of issues in relation to the current protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, including the role of technology in these protests and also the response of activists to the Clinton speeches, concluding with a discussion of the preference for building an open, neutral network that could be used by activists to speak, instead of specific US intervention.

In discussion, questions came from both staff and students from the UEA Law School, touching on behavioural advertising (including how information gathered for this purpose could be used by public authorities), the different roles of ISPs and websites (and how they may be supportive of Index campaigns in some contexts but not others, e.g. net neutrality, co-operation with Government), the relationship between Wikileaks disclosures, Tunisian unrest and demographic changes, the role of the Global Network Initiative and how it can or cannot serve to moderate behaviour, and the response of users to HADOPI in France, particularly the move towards circumvention as a response to control.