Leading the Way on Global Internet Freedom

Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google were two of the featured speakers at last year’s Microsoft–GW Law Distinguished Speaker Series. 

Since its launch more than 20 years ago, the World Wide Web has become an open-air cyber marketplace for exchanging ideas, viewpoints, and messages. But in light of the complex rights issues that arise with those freedoms, some companies and governments rein in what people can share and become overly reactive to controversial dialogue. 

To help defend Internet users’ privacy, human rights, and freedom of expression, GW Professors Arturo Carrillo and Dawn Nunziato created the Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights Speaker Series, which brings top experts to the Law School for timely presentations and discussions. 

“We have been able to turn GW Law into a focal point for high-level discussion in these areas,” Professor Carrillo says. 

Because of its rising profile in the international Internet freedom field, the Law School was officially accepted as an academic member of the Global Network Initiative, a coalition that helps companies defend privacy and freedom of expression rights in the face of government pressure. The initiative brings together tech companies from around the world, as well as academic institutions and individuals, to collaborate and advance freedoms of expression and privacy. 

“Because the Global Network Initiative’s corporate members include the largest and most influential ICT companies in the world—Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook—each of which has committed itself to self-regulation under the Global Network Initiative’s principles for protecting free speech and privacy, our membership in this organization offers us an opportunity to advance these important principles in an unprecedented way,” says Professor Nunziato. The acceptance also brought attention to the speaker series. 

The 2012-2013 Microsoft–GW Law Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights Speaker Series featured keynote discussions with international experts and informed question-and-answer sessions. 

“We addressed a number of very significant issues involving Internet freedom and free speech in particular,” says Professor Nunziato.

Last fall, journalist/activist Rebecca MacKinnon and Professor Nunziato spoke on the ramifications of an anti-Muslim YouTube video, examining YouTube’s responsibility and the role of the First Amendment. The YouTube video caused great unrest in the Muslim world, leading to riots, injuries, and deaths, and placing Google in a very difficult position as a guardian of free speech on the Internet worldwide, Professor Nunziato explains. “In this widely attended speaker series event, we were able to analyze the various principles at stake and offer a way forward for Google/YouTube in the face of similar conflicts.” 

January brought a discussion with Howard Schmidt, former White House cybersecurity coordinator and chief security officer for Microsoft, who looked at developing an effective international cyberspace strategy. Strategy priorities included examining the economy and promoting international standards. “Yes, we’ve had disruptions and people who interfere with things and commit crimes, but guess what, [the strategy] works every day,” he said in his presentation. He noted that the last major international enterprise-level disruption was the MS Slammer worm that shut down corporate systems for days in August 2003. People are working for better cybersecurity and are learning more and improving more every year, he explained. “We have really smart people who can anticipate what the next scenario might be for threats, what platform they might be attacking,” he said. 

The following month, Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google, spoke on threats to Internet freedom and the challenges of preserving digital information. 

In March, the series presented the Tech@State Internet Freedom Conference, in which speakers from the State Department, Microsoft, Google, and non-governmental organizations explored the ways in which Internet technologies can be used to enhance and expand Internet freedoms. 

Previous events sponsored by the speaker series included the Transatlantic Conference on Global Online Freedom and Corporate Responsibility in May 2012.

“The speaker series shows that the Law School is in the forefront of these timely and important issues and that we have generated space for discussion with high-level policymakers and others around these issues,” Professor Carrillo says.

by Carrie Madren