Internet freedom: Challenging the myth of the free anarchic playground

Maximilian Kall from the European Youth Press, representative of the European Youth Forum at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, spoke in workshop 92 “Challenging myths about young people and the Internet” about chilling effects to freedom of expression.

I. The myth

It is widely understood that young people regard the Internet as a free anarchic playground in which they can unfold in whichever way they like.

Young people spend hours and hours on social networks, on YouTube, on online gaming. The myth is: Young people think its all free, its all open, whatever you do – it does not yield negative consequences, be it from law enforcement authorities, from companies, from employers, from teachers, or parents.

II. Analysis

The opposite is often the truth. The Internet is everything but all free. Young people understand that. And consequences are to be identified, understood and tackled.

Many fear an Internet under surveillance, which leads to serious chilling effects on their freedom of expression and participation on the Internet, especially on critical political, economical and societal issues in the public debate.

A BBC study published in 2010 has proven that. While 78 % of the 27.000 people from 26 countries surveyed said they felt the Internet had brought them – in general – greater freedom, there is at the same time massive concern, with many web users cautious about speaking their minds online.

The poll found that they were evenly split between those who felt that “the internet is a safe place to express my opinions” (48%) and those who did not feel this (49%). In Japan 65 % think they could not express their opinions safely online, in South Korea 70 %, France 69 %, China 55 %. In contrast, most Indians (70%), Ghanaians (74%), and Kenyans (73%) felt they could express their opinions safely.

Major obstacles to Internet freedom from the youth point of view derive

- from governmental data retention that makes your future behaviour predictable,
- from commercial exploitation and monetization of digital identities, contrary to effective privacy rights,
- and antiquated copyright laws.

III. Conclusions

Although Internet freedom and human rights aspects are being discussed a lot during the IGF, this particular focus on youth and chilling effects on their internet behaviour is not addressed as a key issue so far.

I think we thus need to discuss it and broaden the focus of Internet rights and freedoms more. And we need to base it on the real Human Rights frameworks in force in international law. Because they exist, and they are strong if they are interpreted according to today’s living environments and communication habits – Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as, considering Europe, Art. 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights, a worldwide renown driving force for the protection of human rights, has continuously stressed the importance of avoiding chilling effects on freedom of expression. For the Internet this is more important than ever. Free expression demands privacy, digital identities demand self-determination.

The youth coalition can respond to this by raising awareness and shattering these common misconceptions.

We need to dispel them among policy-makers, lawyers, media, businesses, civil society – the stakeholders that are present here at the IGF. Also, but not so much among our peers: They are aware of the dangers of free expression. Sometimes even too aware. Some worries go too far. And the chilling effects are considerable and threatening.

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