How much influence can the UN have over online spying?

“Brazil has 100 percent inconvenience, 0 percent security, and 0 percent privacy.”

  by       –    Sept 25 2013, 4:17am +0300

UNITED NATIONS—It’s not everyday that the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in mid-17th century Europe, is invoked when it comes to Internet policy.

But Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves did just that in a Monday keynote address at a side event as part of the United Nations General Assembly, which is currently underway this week in New York. President Ilves said that while the Peace of Westphalia—which dictated that countries (mostly) respect each others’ sovereign boundaries—may have historically applied in physical space, this concept no longer applies when it comes to the online world.

“Cyberspace has no borders. Countries face the import of potentially disruptive liberal ideas of open societies,” he said. “The means of expression, transparency, and accountability empowered by a Google search, a YouTube video, or a tweet, and these are direct threats to a restrictive political system; the World Wide Web turns them into domestic threats to the regime.”

“We must choose between two paths—either we can change the nature of the Internet by acceding to a Westphalian regulatory structure of Internet governance, or we can change the world.”

Ilves spoke before a group of around 60 people and participated in a panel discussion on the theme of “A Secure and Free Internet,” which was hosted by the Permanent Estonian Mission to the United Nations. (Full disclosure: I participated on this panel discussion and my flight to New York was paid for by the Estonian government. President Ilves has also had nice things to say about my 2011 book, The Internet of Elsewhere.)

Estonia, a post-Soviet country that regained its independence in 1991, has become a tech powerhouse in recent years. It is the home of Skype, its citizens have digital ID cards (which power its online voting system), it has a burgeoning startup scene, and it is the home of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. Ilves used his own country as a repeated example of positive Internet policy, where security and privacy do not inherently conflict with one another.

The Estonian president closed his 10 minute address by noting that the UN could “play a role in promoting dialogue among Member States on Internet freedom and security, and in defending Internet Freedom as part of its Human Rights agenda.”

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