No press freedom without Internet freedom

Four years ago, when CPJ launched its Internet Advocacy program, we were met with lots of encouragement, but also some skepticism.

“Why do you need a program to defend the Internet?” one supporter asked. “You don’t have a special program to defend television, or radio, or newspapers.”

But the Internet is different. Increasingly, when it comes to global news and information the Internet is not a platform. It is the platform.

As print and broadcast converge online, as social media plays an increasingly critical role in transmitting news to a mass audience, the Internet has become the primary means through which news is disseminated globally. It has also become an information chokepoint.

Repressive governments are recognizing that the Internet is no longer the province of the connected elite. It’s a form of mass communication which, when unfettered, presents a threat to centralized power and control.

Governments are responding on two levels. From Russia to Ethiopia, and from Turkey to Thailand, we are seeing more and more restrictions on domestic content. Meanwhile, countries like China that have long asserted control over the domestic Internet are advocating for changes to the international Internet governance structure that could undermine the Internet’s role as a shared global resource.

Fortunately, in the last few years the defense of the Internet itself has become a mainstream concern in press freedom circles. Increasingly, journalists and media organizations have recognized a simple truth: There is no press freedom without Internet freedom. We all have a stake in this fight.

At CPJ, we’ve doubled down on our Internet advocacy. In May, Tom Lowenthal joined CPJ as our first staff technologist. He works with Geoffrey King, a constitutional lawyer and policy expert who leads the program. We also established a San Francisco office, housed in Mission*Social, a shared workspace in the South of Market area.

In early July, we hosted the first virtual meeting of our Internet Advisory Group, which is composed of leading thinkers working at the intersection of free expression and technology. Group members include Sue Gardner, Ross LaJeunesse, Rebecca MacKinnon, Mohamed Najem, Ory Okolloh, Xiao Qiang, and Bruce Schneier.

One of the items on the agenda for that meeting was a CPJ campaign, “Right to Report in the Digital Age,” which we will launch soon to raise awareness among journalists about the the threat posed by pervasive surveillance. The issue was highlighted in a new report from Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union which showed how revelations about the NSA’s sweeping surveillance program have changed the way journalists operate and stifled reporting on national security issues. The HRW/ACLU report adds context to concerns raised in CPJ’s 2013 report, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” which showed how the White House obstructs reporting by aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers, putting reporters under a legal microscope, and otherwise thwarting transparency.

Geoffrey and Tom are also working on updating CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide to provide more comprehensive information about digital security. They are working across CPJ to systematically improve our internal practices. For example, you can now find some staff GPG public keys alongside our work, and CPJ soon expects to install SecureDrop, a secure information submission system maintained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Ironically, just as the concept of Internet advocacy has taken hold among free expression groups, the broader landscape has begun to shift. Increasingly, advocating for the free circulation of news and information at a global level means defending not just the Internet, but the broader technological environment. This includes wireless and mobile as well as the tools that journalists rely on to report the news. We are evaluating a name change for CPJ’s Internet Advocacy program to reflect this increased scope.

UPDATE: The ninth paragraph has been changed to reflect the correct date of CPJ’s first Internet Advisory Group meeting, which took place in July, not in June as previously stated.