The presence and impact of bloggers is reflected in the steps states take to track them through their digital footprints. "Bloggers have been key to human rights advocacy worldwide," said Green MEP Barbara Lochbihler, chair of the Human Rights subcommittee.
Should a blogger be a candidate for the Sakharov Peace Prize? Does society understand the threat to freedom of speech or the pressure placed on bloggers in countries with a highly controlled internet? Is the European Union guilty of double standards, expecting to dictate freedom of speech and security without practicing what they preach?
Advocates of a free and open internet, and human rights bloggers, met at a Greens/EFA conference at the European Parliament on December 5. The conference looked at restraints presented by the information technology industry that operates under a lack of accountability and transparency, and questioned whether human rights violations are taking place because of inaction by the European Union. Bloggers spoke of the constant threat to their individual freedom and how the tools they use to question the actions of their government is often controlled by the state and used to track them down.
A broad range of digital activism was represented by the bloggers on the panel. Despite the numbers of bloggers active in a country or the danger they put themselves in by blogging, there was a constant theme to their motivation. Blogging thrives in countries where free press does not exist.The presence and impact of bloggers is reflected in the steps states take to track them through their digital footprints. "Bloggers have been key to human rights advocacy worldwide," said Green MEP Barbara Lochbihler, chair of the Human Rights subcommittee. "Regimes often buy internet technologies so they can control bloggers and the flow of information." While the European Union advocates for human rights around the world, there are no controls on European companies selling technology that allows regimes to identify, and target, their opponents.
"There is a fundamental lack of understanding about the impact of technology on our society and the world as a whole," said Marietje Schaake, an MEP in the committee on foreign affairs, who wrote 'A Digital Freedom Strategy in EU Foreign Policy'. The paper highlights how the technology used to monitor and control the internet is constantly improving. European companies have been at the forefront of development and selling these technologies.
"Governments cannot do this independently, so we do call on businesses to also exercise their responsibility," continued Schaake. "And asking other countries to [behave responsibly] adds responsibilities to ourselves. We have regulations from fruit [and] vegetables to toys, from chemicals to cars, but there is not enough transparency and accountability in information technology."
Eva Lichtenberger MEP is one of the key leaders in digital rights for the European Greens. She commented, "EU products have been exported and used to spy in other jurisdictions. The EU has imported and used products used against EU citizens as well."
Linus Nordberg, an advocate of the TOR project, which enables online anonymity, and Martin Löwdin, a Swedish activist, say digital freedom is a matter of developing privacy by design and not privacy by policy. "Privacy comes by not storing personal data," said Löwdin. "It is not by a policy that says, 'I will not tell anyone'," said Nordberg.
However, even for those who would advocate minimal government presence in society, the need for EU regulation remains.
"I am a Liberal and want as little government regulation as possible," said Schaake. "But we have to take on these responsibilities before we pass it on to businesses who have profits and share holders as their bottom line. Self-regulation sounds great, but do we really want companies, behind closed doors, to decide? I don't think so."
The numbers of activist bloggers can vary tremendously from state to state, with. According to Oleg Kashin, there are about 150 bloggers in Russia who question the actions of the state. “Russian authorities are terrified of criticism," he said.
In contrast, online protest have reached unprecedented levels in China. According to Michael Anti (aka Zhao Jing), 300 million people use a state-owned Chinese copy of Twitter to protest. This is a dangerous undertaking: China offers their own version of Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and all information transferred through these sites runs through a state-controlled servers. The potential for identifying critics of the government is unparalleled. Online protest in China have actually given more security to the state communist party. Protests are often focused on the local level, on small politicians, drawing attention away from some of the state-level corruption.
"Controlling social media is in China’s favour," said Anti. "You can do what you want, but you must provide what the people want. The Chinese love social media, so the government has responded with content decentralization and server centralization. Through this, the Chinese government is gaining more power than ever before with social media."
Azerbaijan blogger Arzu Geybullayeva was well able to present the impact of state-controlled intimidation of online protestors. "Bloggers are accused of being hooligans and drug users – these are popular accusations.” She spoke about the incident where two online activists made a parody video of a donkey being interviewed about what it was like to live in Azerbaijan. The video was seen as offensive to the government.
"[The activists] were found in a restaurant and were beaten up. They went to the police to file a complaint and, instead, they were arrested and charged with hooliganism and inflicting bodily harm and were sentenced to two years and two and a half years in prison [respectively].
The issues surrounding bloggers privacy and freedom of speech are areas where the Green movement has been at the forefront. Defeating the ACTA agreement in 2012 was a clear demonstration of effective Green leadership in this field. Digital freedom is a major concern within the Green movement as its effect has such wide-reaching impact on information control, freedom of speech, and human rights among other issues. A working paper on digital freedom is currently being prepared and will be presented at the EGP Spring council in Madrid, Spain.