Three questions to Julie Owono, Executive Director of Internet Sans Frontières

*This interview first appeared in our November newsletter in French.


1.   Your NGO, Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders), mainly operates in France, Togo, Brazil and the United States. Can you tell us about its missions? What challenges does it deal with in such different countries when it comes to Internet access?

Internet Sans Frontières is a non-profit organization which was created in 2007 and registered in 2008, whose main objective was initially to protect freedom of expression online and those who express themselves on the Internet (bloggers imprisoned for publishing information on social networks, activists, journalists…). After Edward Snowden’s revelations, among others, Internet Sans Frontières realized the importance of addressing the issue of privacy on the Internet, especially on social platforms and with regard to government surveillance policies. As a result, we have progressively broadened the scope of our work towards the expression of human rights on the Internet. We also defend equal access to the Internet: a connection that is not a luxury, and to an uncensored Internet, allowing access to all the content that is available on the network.

We operate in countries where Internet access varies, but where the problems we encounter are the same. When we talk about privacy today, the problem is the same everywhere: how to protect users’ privacy on the Internet, in the face of assaults not only from increasingly powerful private companies, but also from governments? The issue of the digital divide is much more prevalent in developing countries, but also exists in places such as the United States. During the pandemic, I was stunned to discover that there are parts of the country, urban areas, which lack a stable and affordable Internet. The cost issue is more acute in developing countries: in some of them, the connection cost can represent, on average, 15 to 20 percent or even up to 50 percent of the minimum wage, which is a lot. The challenge of Internet access therefore exists everywhere, but manifests itself differently depending on the area: in countries where the infrastructure already exists to a greater or lesser extent, it is mainly a question of increasing digital literacy among the population and connecting remote areas, whereas elsewhere, Internet access in itself is the primary problem.


2.   Facebook’s Oversight Board, which you are a member of, officially began its work on October 22nd. What is its purpose? Do you think that such committees can lead us towards a better Internet governance?

The purpose of the Oversight Board is to make binding decisions regarding the moderation by Facebook and Instagram of content published on these platforms. Requests can be made by Facebook and Instagram, but also by aggrieved users (whose content was removed in the moderation process). For the time being, we rather focus on deleted content. However, in the long run, requests concerning content that is still visible on the platform, but which is problematic, may be submitted to the Board. Any user could therefore, potentially, send us requests if they are not satisfied to see specific content on the platform.

The Oversight Board’s decisions will be made public. As part of its decision-making process, the Board may seek to obtain amicus curiae briefs from experts in the relevant subject areas, and there will be a time period for any third party to make public comments if they believe they have an interest in the matter. The idea is to be as open to the world and as transparent as possible, including through the publication of an annual report, so that everyone can judge the effectiveness of our work.

I think that such models can provide answers to the question of how to maintain spaces for citizen expression, without falling into excessive censorship. In my opinion, we still have to find a balance between, on the one hand, the regulations proposed by governments (which aim at making platforms the watchdogs of expression, although they have neither the will nor the technical, intellectual and human means to do so), and on the other hand, the regulation as seen by the platforms themselves. The Oversight Board is an entity which is external to Facebook, governments and civil society organizations, which brings an international (it should be noted that 70% of Facebook and Instagram users are based outside of the United States, so a U.S.-centric approach would not be relevant) and legal perspective on these matters (balancing the policies established by Facebook against international texts on freedom of expression and human rights). From a legal point of view, we are therefore interested in all the existing  regional and international case-law regarding freedom of expression: our members include the former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Catalina Botero-Marino), a former judge from the European Court of Human Rights (András Sajó), and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (Maina Kiai). We have members who have worked on these issues within different organizations, which gives us a comprehensive understanding of these challenges. The most difficult task will be to come up with a global interpretation, which is one of the goals we have set for ourselves.


3.   As several NGOs, including Internet Sans Frontières, have denounced numerous Internet shutdowns imposed by governments, net neutrality remains regarded as an essential principle to ensure the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms on the Internet. What would citizens risk if net neutrality was no longer guaranteed?

It saddens me, but in many parts of the world, net neutrality is no longer the principle: it is almost becoming the exception. There are countries in which Internet access is not comprehensive: this is not the Internet we had 10 years ago, where we could access any resource we wanted. We must ask ourselves an existential question about net neutrality: what is the reality of this principle today? It is, in fact, flouted. First of all, by governments, who are turning the network and its infrastructure into spaces of sovereignty: this allows them to request telecommunications and network infrastructure (cables, in particular) operators to censor the Internet. The principle of neutrality is also under attack from private actors. Under the guise of seeking to connect the world, which is a great goal in itself, companies such as Facebook and others are offering access to a free but partial Internet. The latter only includes Facebook and some websites picked by Facebook and its partners – of which we know very little – via the  Facebook Free Basics app. Furthermore, those platforms sign contracts with Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Orange or Tigo, to name but a few, so that Internet users are not charged when using their services. That’s good, because it favors access to the Internet, but this Internet really comes down to Facebook. Yet, the goal of net neutrality is to provide a space on which to browse freely. I therefore doubt that net neutrality remains a principle in many countries, and this is worrying.

To come back to the sources of this principle, we need much more transparency. For example, it is difficult to know where Facebook’s Free Basics service is available, and that is an issue. If we don’t know where it is available, we can’t know which ISPs sign such agreements with Facebook. This information should be made public, because the Internet is a public infrastructure, a public good. This also requires better governance, including of the Internet access infrastructure. We know very little about what is happening in submarine cable management consortia. Yet, it is precisely this infrastructure that provides much of today’s Internet’s capacity. Civil society should be represented within these bodies, in addition to governments (which have a natural seat because the cables pass through their territorial waters) and private companies (which fund the deployment of this equipment), so as to be able to raise the alarm against practices that may infringe on freedoms and the network’s neutrality. These are two paths which we are currently exploring.

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