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Scientists Should Work to Maintain the Internet as a Tool for Freedom, Diplomat Says

The Internet increases the flexibility of scientific research around the globe, but it can also be used for nefarious purposes. Some nations restrict access to digital content, and authoritarian governments spy on intellectuals through the Web, gathering information to intimidate and imprison academics.

In a talk at AAAS on 10 October, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, called for scientists to speak out against digital repression. The freedom to debate and participate in scientific research is essential to scientists, and often taken for granted, he said. Scientists could help educate policymakers and bring their expertise to public debates about Internet regulation.

“Exchange of information and scientific collaboration is happening online, just as 21st-century repression is online,” Posner said. “Scientific freedom will not exist without Internet freedom.”

Posner also answered questions from an audience of over 100 people and event moderator Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. The Institute works to support , promote, and analyze the effects of open source technology, and it also conducts research for policy makers and the public.

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Posner addressed concerns about murkier aspects of U.S. Internet policy. For instance: How can the United States promote an open Internet, while also acknowledging intellectual property rights and security issues?

One of the biggest challenges of the next 50 years will be to increase collaboration between human rights activists and scientists, Posner said. Such partnerships would lead to a more open Internet, and also help governments navigate through complicated legal issues.

Human Rights and Scientific Involvement

After governments used scientific research to commit atrocities during World War II, many scientists challenged the notion that objectivity prohibits scientists from considering the social and political implications of their work.

AAAS established its Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility in 1976, in part to monitor scientific freedom at home and abroad. Since then, AAAS has continued to address the impact of science and engineering on ethical, legal, and human rights issues with projects now led by its Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program (SRHRL). Among other accomplishments, SRHRL has used technology in recent years to document human rights issues in Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Zimbabwe, and other nations.

Partnering with associations that share AAAS’s commitment to bridging science, engineering, and medicine with human rights, AAAS created the Science and Human Rights Coalition in 2009, and this group organized the dialogue with Posner.

Scientists and human rights activists come from different backgrounds, Posner said, but they share similarities.

“Scientific fact is not bound by borders, and neither are human rights. Scientific truth does not change when governments change, and neither do the principles of human rights,” he said.

The Internet as a Human Rights Issue

In 1948—at the brink of the Cold War—the United Nations undertook the task of defining basic global human rights. The UN hoped this Universal Declaration of Human Rights would reduce conflict among nations and ensure international stability. Countries that participated in the formation of the declaration included the United States, Russia, China, France, Lebanon, and Chile.

In his talk at AAAS, Posner focused on how the Internet overlaps with one particular element of the declaration, Article 27. The article states: “Everyone has the right to freely participate in cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Digital technology can limit participation in discourse, cultural life, and scientific research. For example, the Iranian government expels students for political comments made on social media sites, Posner said. Oppressive regimes also use the Internet to suppress controversial conversations, “hunting down and silencing activists.”

Some nations also keep citizens from benefitting from the Internet. Up to 47% of all Internet users face content restrictions imposed by their governments, Posner said.

Recently, Cuba “installed a fiber-optic cable delivering high-speed Internet,” but limits the use of this connection to government officials, he explained. “Citizens are left with the slowest and most expensive connections in Latin America, in those limited occasions when the government of Cuba allows them any access at all.”

The United States and international organizations work to solve these problems by expanding infrastructure around the world, and using technology to improve Internet access. They also train academics in repressive countries on how to avoid malware and tracking technology.

Posner stressed the need for increased collaboration between scientific and human rights professionals.

“You [the scientific community] bring the gravitas and credibility to public debate, and frankly provide the voices of reason when distorted discussions of scientific issues develop into sensationalism and scare-mongering,” he said. “We need you to lead on academic and scientific freedom, and particularly to defend Internet freedom.”

Scientists can identify funding and research priorities, ensure quality scientific education, remove obstructions to scientific freedom, and work to educate policy makers, Posner explained.

The Future of Internet Policy

Moderator Sascha Meinrath and members of the audience asked Posner about seemingly conflicting elements in U.S. Internet policy.

How can U.S. companies make their products available around the world, but also keep software from abusive governments? How can the United States protect intellectual property rights while also promoting an open Internet? How does censoring specific types of content—such as child pornography—conflict with free speech and an open Internet?

Posner answered these concerns in a similar fashion.

People can abuse many types of technology—such as the 9/11 terrorists using airplanes and cell phones, he said. However, these tools, including the Internet, provide innumerable benefits.

There may be “no perfect answer” to these issues, but they provide a starting point for human rights groups and scientists.

“We are trying to find our way in what is both technically and legally a complicated set of policies,” he stated.

As shown by their numerous questions at the AAAS event, members of the scientific community are interested in the implications of digital technology, and in continuing this discussion.

“Scientists are involved with the Internet and develop innovations that affect how the Internet is used,” said Darcy Gentleman, manager of public policy communications at the American Chemical Society, after the talk. “They need to be involved in the policy debate.”


Learn more about the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Learn more about the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.