NSA snooping and youth rights at Internet UN’s Internet Governance Forum

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

BALI, Indonesia — For the past eight years, Internet “stakeholders” from governments, nonprofit and activist organizations and the technology industry have gathered at the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum to talk about Internet policy issues such as child protection, free speech, privacy and freedom of online speech. And last week, about 2,000 people gathered in Bali to continue the conversation.

This is the fourth IGF I’ve attended. In previous years, the United States had the moral high ground when it came to issues of openness, freedom of expression and protection against unwarranted privacy intrusions, especially from governments. But Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics has become a major subtext at this year’s conference.

In her remarks at the opening session, Lynn St. Amour, the CEO of the Internet Society, condemned the government’s surveillance as “a cloud over all our efforts” that undermines the trust people have in the Internet.

And in an interview, Thomas Gass, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for economic and social affairs, talked about the need to rebuild trust in the Internet. In addition to his concern about NSA surveillance on U.S. citizens and foreign governments, he worries that other countries will try to set up “similar surveillance systems or protection systems against the surveillance.” Like others who expressed concern, Gass acknowledged that “we know the U.S. is not the only country that has been doing this.”

In a session on big data, Alexandrine Pirlot of Privacy International criticized the NSA for collecting data without a specific purpose or the knowledge and consent of the people who’s data is being collected.

Marie Georges, an adviser to the Council of Europe, warned that if that kind of government surveillance continues, “people will be very afraid to use any kind of information technology.”

Of course, there were plenty of other issues also discussed at IGF, including domain name policies, cybersecurity threats, network infrastructure technical issues and human rights, copyright and intellectual property concerns. However, by design, nothing was resolved. Attendees at the three-day conference don’t make any binding decisions. The IGF is not a governing body, but simply a place for all stakeholders to discuss issues

I was there to speak on a couple of panels on digital citizenship for youth and one titled “Child Protection vs. the Rights of the Child” that explored whether efforts to protect children online might also restrict their rights of free speech.

I organized the workshop because — as a longtime Internet safety advocate — I’ve noticed the adult response to helping keep kids safe often involves some type of monitoring or filtering that can impact children’s privacy or limit their ability to express themselves or access information.

Many schools, for example, block access to social media sites. And while parents and schools may have valid reasons to keep kids from looking at porn, the filters that block porn sometimes also block other types of content as well. And then there is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that protects kids from revealing personal information to marketers, and keeps kids under 13 from accessing Facebook and other social media sites because the sites allow users to share information.

I’m all for finding ways to keep online children safe, but I thought it worth exploring the extent to which it’s necessary to restrict their freedom in the name of privacy and safety. I’m not arguing that adults shouldn’t supervise or restrict children’s online activities. But when it comes to speech issues, I think it’s worth pointing out that the First Amendment doesn’t have an age test.

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