Visitors' programme 'Cyber Policies' | 2014

Secure freedom of expression and democracy

Participants' feedback. By Sebastian Blottner

Data security, cyber crime and first and foremost the protection of personal freedoms as well as the protection against the threats emerging from the digital change targeting our basic rights and democracy are delicate issues that influence the development of new German cyber policies.

A ‘digital agenda’ is supposed to help stimulate comprehensive reforms. The topical nature and significance of these issues were the reason for the invitation of a group of bloggers, predominantly conventional journalists and media scholars from transformation countries without or with limited freedom of the press to join a visitors’ program in order to discuss the approaches of Germany to cyber policies and analyse the way in which civil society deals with questions relating to digitalisation.

The participants had the possibility to establish contacts, share information and get involved in discussions about Germany´s international engagement in these fields as well as its national security mechanisms during discussions with representatives from the German Federal Foreign Office, the new Committee Digital Agenda of the German Bundestag and the Federal Ministry of the Interior, in meetings with IT security experts, persons responsible for consumers’ rights and several different non-governmental organisations.

It was the intention of the program to raise awareness amongst the participants for the political implications that arise as a consequence of on-going digitalisation: be it the threatening supervision through omnipotent service providers or private firms or new forms of democratic participation and the engagement of civil society organisations. It became apparent very quickly in the course of the discussions and comments made that in Germany concerns and scepticism are particularly pronounced compared with other international players. In many other countries a discussion about meaningful cyber policies has not even begun.

This is all the more surprising since many of the transformation countries that were represented in the group had gone a quantum leap forward in their development, which had taken them directly to the digital and bloggers age. The level of utilisation of social media etc. is sometimes much higher than it is in many industrialised states. ‘I didn’t know about the big data and cyber security issue before. That was very interesting for me. For our work at home the copyright issues were the most important thing’, stated for example Saroj Singh, news editor at the Times Internet Service in India.

‘Regarding the Internet world you have a large scope of values and the most common and the most precious thing that could inspire us is the data protection law that you cherish a lot. It is not implemented yet in our countries and we need to work on that.’ (Dhouha Ben Youssef, blogger, Tunisia)

In comparison to his home country, Jordan, the freelancer and blogger Ahmad Monther Mohammad Almomani thought that the situation in Germany still looked pretty rosy. ‘Here they are doing great work for the security policy for German people. We have no such thing in Jordan.’ In this regards the visit to the Federal Ministry of the Interior filled the group with amazement because this is where precise strategies for cyber policies are being developed. Of course it would not be true to say that the participants did not reflect at all about the governments’ interest to regulate the Internet. But German politicians are pursuing a completely different path. Especially the Ministries of the Interior in the countries of origin of the participants are sometimes considered to be direct enemies or objects of hate by independent journalists or bloggers. ‘Here in Germany there is genuine interest. In Azerbaijan the interest is kind of twisted because it has bad intentions. If they want to have modern internet, it's because they want surveillance and to know what people are doing,’ that is how Arzu Geybullayeva, journalist from Azerbaijan, boiled it down to an essence.

‘Your way of interacting with the government and the federal institutions is really different from countries like mine’, was the comment made by Dhouha Ben Youssef in this context. ‘When we visited the ministry of the interior, this openness is really something to keep in mind once we go back to our countries and try to push our governments for more openness and transparency. If we can.’

Since the regulation of the Internet in most countries of origin of the participants, if it exists at all, serves the purpose of exerting state control on the opposition, many bloggers have taken on a libertarian stance aiming at complete ‘freedom’ in cyber space. In the course of the program it became more and more apparent that this is not necessarily the be-all and end-all. ‘I come from a very libertarian background. Seen Germanys past I realize that people are willing to give up absolute freedoms which could be on a black and white scale seen as censorship but is here more understood as limitation of certain types of hate speech, learning from various experiences and learning from the hurt that has happened in the history of a country. I still see certain kind of censorship in Germany but I understand the need of it.’ (Blogger from Sri Lanka)

‘For me personally the most important thing was, to see how data protection and freedom of information can be controversial and that it is almost impossible to find a global balance for this two rights.’ (Ágnes Urbán, Corvinus-University Budapest)

The Palestinian blogger Ziad Abu Zayyad, in addition to that, made the following remark: ‘I did not expect the German people in general to be still connected deeply to the near past. At the same time the German government tries to make the internet more useful for the people.’ This statement shows very clearly that the historical experience gained in a regime of surveillance and control is a very important momentum for the critical discussion in Germany.

The potential threat posed by Google became a dictum in the diverse discussions. In this context Google was mentioned in place of private data kraken. Many of the participants considered them to be no longer a problem.‘ There are two main takeaways that I have from the program in comparison with my country. How concerned the German people are about privacy and how they make a difference between states surveillance and private companies,’ commented a blogger from Sri Lanka.

For many participants the discussions within the group were a decisive component of their experience gained in Germany. ‘One of the best things I could get from this program is that I could get in touch with people from different cultures from around the world. It was very important for me to learn from Russia or from Azerbaijan, it seems that they are experiencing the same problems that we in Angola have, of autocratic regimes,’ said Kady Mixinge, a blogger from Angola. Moiyen Zalal Chowdhury, a blogger from Bangladesh, was of the same opinion. ‘The most important about this trip for me is first of all the diversity of the group, we had lots of lots of things to learn. I realized that every context is so different.’

‘From this group and from this trip we should make kind of a global diversified collaboration to make a really global network. This could also have an impact on the security of the bloggers.’ (Moiyen Zalal Chowdhury)

Apart from the possibility of networking with the different players within the group, the participants really appreciated the diversity of the subjects that were covered by the program. ‘I got the chance to learn a lot about the governmental point of view on the cyber war and internet in general and at the same time what people think about it so it was a very successful workshop for me’ stated Ziad Abu Zayyad.

‘The most astounding to me was that the German Government organizes the programme and we could still meet a lot of speakers of the civil society. The South Korean Government wouldn't do that.’ (Kyung Young Choi, Korean Centre of Investigative Journalism)

Once mentioned the questions concerning informal and personal security in cyber space attracted a lot of attention by the bloggers. Technical assistance such as the tools provided by Daniel O'Clunaigh from the Tactical Technology Collective or warnings such as the ones expressed by the IT security expert Sandro Gaycken contributed to raising awareness amongst the participants for many diverse aspects that they themselves are affected by.

‘I got a vision of what might be installed for us in the future regarding security, privacy and things like that. It is high time that we start to think about this, how to deal with this and how to balance the crisis. So this programme gave me a diverse kind of perspective and kind of warned me, to take it seriously. And that blogging can be taken to a total different level.’ (Trishia Nashtaran, blogger, Bangladesh)

‘According to our contexts we can maybe implement some ideas we took from here, for example about the data protection laws. Things like data protection laws is something that doesn't exist in Angola, yet’, is a conclusion that was drawn by Kady Mixinge. The mere fact that a digital agenda is being devised at full speed with the participation of politicians and civil society organisations which are fully integrated in the on-going process and are fully committed was nothing new to the participants, but was a very impressive and one of the most important experiences gained during the trip. Arzu Geybullayeva reported that a system like this does not exist in her country at all: ‘To see from the perspective of the government, how they work on the digital agenda, how much involved they are and how much interested they are, that was the most interesting part. That's unique. And also to see how the civil society is involved.’

By way of conclusion on behalf of almost all the participants who were deeply impressed by the cooperation between all the different players, I would like to quote Moiyen Zalal Chowdhury, who said: ‘The combination that you have here of the government and the private sector to secure freedom of expression and democracy is good and fascinating.’ This statement reveals very clearly why a ‘digital agenda’ is so very important – it is meant to protect the plurality of opinions and democracy.