A blog on why norms matter online

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

EU hires German plagiarism prince to promote Internet freedom: a silver lining?

The EU's Internet initiatives need representatives displaying intellectual vigour who are of high moral standing, not copy&paste experts. (c) http://www.flickr.com/photos/nuccini/1854713722/

On 12 December, the EU Commission announced  that

"European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes has invited Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former Federal Minister of Defence, and of Economics and Technology, in Germany, to advise on how to provide ongoing support to Internet users, bloggers and cyber-activists living under authoritarian regimes."
As a policy, this is a good move. Authoritarian rulers have traditionally had a choice to limit access to information (and thus reduce the danger of opposition) or to allow information and communication technologies to be used and risk the subversion of their rule. This dictator’s dilemma has been impressively confirmed by recent events in the Arab Spring. 

In the wake of the revolutions in the Arab World, the Commission has published a Joint Communication, "A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean" (COM(2011) 200). The Commission underscored that "ensuring the security, stability and resilience of the Internet and of other electronic communication technologies is a fundamental building block in democracy" and committed to 

"avoid[ing] arbitrarily depriving or disrupting citizen's access to them. Given the trans-border and interconnected nature of electronic communications technologies, including the Internet, any unilateral domestic intervention can have severe effects on other parts of the world. The Commission will develop tools to allow the EU, in appropriate cases, to assist civil society organisations or individual citizens to circumvent such arbitrary disruptions."

Again, that's a good thing. Assisting civil society is circumventing repressive measures, including filtering and blocking, is both intrinsically positive and a good policy choice. 

As the Commission writes in its press release,

"Enabling citizens of authoritarian countries to bypass such surveillance and censorship measures depends on two basic conditionsavailability of appropriate technologies (in particular software programs that can be installed on one's desktop computer, laptop, smart-phone or other device) and awareness / knowledge, both of the techniques used by authoritarian regimes to spy on citizens and censor their communications, and of the appropriate counter-measures to use."

This echoes the two dimensions of access which UN expert Frank la Rue wrote about at length in this report on freedom of expression and I briefly summarized.  

But this is not the problem. 

The problem is that the EU has hired a former German minister who had to step down after lying about plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation.

The Commissioner proudly proclaims that 
"This appointment forms a key element of a new "No Disconnect Strategy" to uphold the EU's commitment to ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected both online and off-line, and that internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) can remain a driver of political freedom, democratic development and economic growth."

These are noble goals, sensible goals, but the choice of personnel is bad. 

Among all the cyber experts in the world, the EU Commissioner chose a former German politician who is widely known to have  plagiarized most of his dissertation. 

Withdrawing his academic title, the former German defense minister's alma mater, the University of Bayreuth, was described what he did clearly: Guttenberg "extensively violated academic standards and intentionally cheated." In the words of SPD parliamentarian Thomas Oppermann, Guttenberg is "an academic impostor and a liar", he "lied and deceived."

When an international organization seeks an expert for dealing with sensitive human rights issues, it will usually select a person of high moral standing and unquestionable personal integrity.

Guttenberg's personal integrity is highly questionable and his standing as an advocate for Internet freedom beyond the freedom of copy and paste and steal the thoughts of others without proper attribution leaves something to be desired.

If it were April 1, we'd have a laugh and return to our work. 

But it's September 13, and we won't laugh and formulate a belated suggestion to the Commission.

What EU Commissioner Kroes should have done is hired real experts of high moral standing, impeccable character and great expertise in analyzing and applying circumvention technology. 

Instead of an unemployed plagiator, I'd have suggested Hal RobertsEthan Zuckerman and John Palfrey, of Harvard's Berkman Center, who have recently published the most important report on the tools of the trade of circumvention technology, the 2011 Circumvention Tool Evaluation report. Also, they haven't plagiarized their PhD dissertations.

But there might be a silver lining to the Commission's seemingly ill-informed appointment. 

Guttenberg and the dictators fighting Internet freedom have something in common.

Both are experienced with angry crowds of online activists publishing information online that they'd rather not have the world see. In Guttenberg's case, it was plagiarism in his thesis. In authoritarian regimes, it will be human rights violations.

So here's the silver lining: Guttenberg can share his personal experience - and he can walk the walk.

If he convinces dictators to act the same way he did - lie a bit, if they must, but then accept the inevitable and go peacefully - he might actually not have been such a bit choice after all.

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