Freedom of Expression and New Technologies
I would like to thank the Vienna Office of the OSCE for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to speak to you about Freedom of Expression in ICT. Now Freedom of Expression is a very nice and important phrase but I don’t want to get too poetic about it and look at the practical implications in the global infosphere.
To approach the issue of Technology and Freedom of Expression I would like to look into three terms that are encompassing and underlying this issue: Digital Human Rights, Digital Ecology and Future Heritage.
In the early years of the WWW there was much talk about the wonderful potential of these New Communication Technologies for education, democratization and cultural participation, and of unheard possibilities of human expression and exchange across geographical boundaries. Unfortunately this potential remains undeveloped and economic interest is now dominating the public sphere of the data networks. Although the Internet, like like many other innovations (including the most common search engine Google), was originally developed outside of competitive commercial markets, and the so-called New Economy has failed miserably, the development of the essential technologies of a knowledge-based society has largely been surrendered to the "invisible hands" of the markets. But democratization and freedom of expression should not be left to hysteric stock markets or global entrepreneurs.
Freedom of expression is a human right laid down in the UN Charta. So let us first look at the issue of Digital Human Rights which is, of course, connected to the other fields. The purpose of Digital Human Rights is to ensure that every human being may participate in this medium of digital intercommunication and use its potential freely and unrestrictedly. Digital Human Rights are based upon the understanding of communication as motor of civilization and foundation of individuality as well as communities. The very basic digital human rights are the right to access to the electronic domain, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of expression and association online.
Most of new media and ICT have a military control technology background. So a primary concern regarding these technologies is their use for the purposes of political control and repression. Apart from fully simulated digital theaters of battle, this ranges from high-tech non-lethal weapons to an all pervasive surveillance and dataveillance system that is spreading in public places and working its way into personal ICT applications.
This emerging totality of surveillance conflicts with another digital human right, that of privacy and anonymity which is a necessary prerequisite for true freedom of expression. Also the involuntary exploitation of the databody that is strongly driven by economic interest is an aspect of this attack on the individual or on groups.
Positively defined, access to information and to digital communication channels is another basic human right. We can see the digital exclusion not only along the dividing line between North and South, it is also developing within the rich western democracies. It seems that a large segment of the population will be excluded from the high-tech informational economy and become obsolete for the production cycle. But even those who manage to find a place in the economy of symbol manipulation have to expect a deterioration and homogenization of their workplace, and a narrowing of their possibilities of self-expression. Digital computer slaves and non-human expert systems are in competition with the human workforce. Sure enough, machines do not mind to work 24/7 and they are not tempted by trade union membership.
Now, secondly, I would like to introduce the notion of Digital Ecology. This is about thinking of the sphere of electronic information that spans the globe as a sustainable environment. It is in the public interest that these information landscapes are not totally surrendered to rendered to short term profit or individual control. On the contrary, to ensure democratic debate and participation, it is necessary to guarantee a public sphere that is independent of direct state or economic control. A rich public domain and the establishment of a Digital Commons is a prerequisite of a healthy and sustainable information environment.
Not only has the rise of money networks for electronic financial transactions virtualized the economic structures, the creation of value through intangible Intellectual Property and copyright has overtaken the economic significance of the military industry in countries like the US. The IP lobby is strongly opposed to the public domain and is also battling against other forms of shared knowledge, such as Open Source software. The use of proprietary software by governments and public administration is not only expensive, it constrains policy making and leads to a dependence of the public interest on the business agenda of software companies. There is a conflict between public interest and private interest, the Virtual Cartels vs. Digital Commons and Public Domain – and the extreme market concentration of Media and IP companies that allows for this symbolic land grab.
"Through the patenting of software, all intellectual methods may be patented in the future. This virtual land grab could have disastrous consequences on the free access to knowledge and to fair competition." (Philippe Quéau, UNESCO, World-Information.Org 2000)
The new conflicts on the distribution of wealth will be less focused on the traditional creation of value in material goods and energy production but in the intangible world of Intellectual Property and distribution rights. Under the heading of Digital Rights Management (DRM), the plan is to create a fully controlled content environment which includes all aspects of hard- and software in so called "trusted systems". We can see the gap widening not only in the control of the communication infrastructure but in the increasing imbalance in the control of information itself, be it in the form of patents, copyright control, software or media content. Many countries are caught in a spiral of poverty because they are unable to pay high license fees. Should only the richest nation have access and visibility in the global communication channels? Should only wealthy people have the benefit of global access to education and information? Education requires free access to culture technologies such as books and online media. But in the future, instead of being freely available, culture is turning into a payable service where works delete themselves after the lease has expired.
Freedom of Expression is in need of Freedom of Information and the Freedom to freely access and use Information. Not only the creative expression of popular culture draws from a cultural heritage and is based on building blocks of cultural achievements accumulated over centuries. A major part of the cultural achievements in Europe would have been hardly possible under the rigorous copyright regime that is in the making. But this commodification of information is not limited to the inorganic world. Increasingly, the whole biosphere including humanity itself becomes part of the information market economy. This ranges from the patenting of indigenous crops, or animals and of human genes, to the biometric scanning, profiling and sorting of the population.
Finally, the accumulated capital of free expression is the foundation of our Future Cultural Heritage. Securing the future heritage requires appropriate legal, technical, scientific and financial measures. Close cooperation and collaboration between technology developers, artists and scientists can provide the test bed necessary for a rich and diverse electronic culture. This must include the constant upgrading, storage and accessibility of digital art, the enhancement of non-commercial, public electronic networks, as well as the enforced presentation and mediation of electronic art. Above all, the preservation of the future heritage requires a large-scale increase of awareness. If humankind refrains from these efforts, our generation will transmit an impoverished, mutilated heritage to the generations to come.
New technologies not only open up a new world of communication and distribution of knowledge but also allow for new forms of disinformation and manipulation. If only the sheer mass of available data makes one look for ways of filtering the amount of information to a quantity that can actually be processed. These systems of filtering and processing, whether human or automated software agents, offers many ways to introduce a hidden bias or framing information based on a concealed agenda. Technology in itself is never neutral in its societal implications. Unlike the production of material goods, the information industry is also a cognitive industry that influences our ways of thinking and our perspectives. Therefore an environment which truly enables freedom of expression must be based on an informational structures that are transparent, open and accountable. I refer to the research that looks into the public interest on a structural level as Cultural Intelligence.
Cultural Intelligence services are needed to foster and protect the public sphere and discourse as well as the variety and richness of cultural expressions in a society largely based on ICT. By observing and analyzing cultural, socio-political, technological and economic trends, culture intelligence counters the public’s lack of meta-information as foundation for decision-making. Cultural intelligence is needed to balance traditional military or economic intelligence services that gather information to increase control by serving the public interest through citizen’s empowerment and independence, as an advocate of citizens' rights of cultural freedom, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.