Freedom of Expression and New Technologies
by Konrad Becker (AT)
On 7 October, 2002, Konrad Becker, Director of World-Information.Org,
was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the preparatory event for the
OSCE Mediterranean Seminar on media and new technologies: implications for governments, international organizations and civil society (4-5
I would like to thank the Vienna Office of the OSCE, Mr. Ivanko and Ms
Abela 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, llike 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
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 t he
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
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
"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
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 larg e-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 industrthat
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.