Content, Contingencies and Conflict on the Internet

2 June 2010

Rebellion at the farm

An African legend tells the story of a mouse that lived in a house in the country. One day, from the door of his cave, he was able to see how the house’s owner prepared a trap to catch him, and stowed it in a basket. The little one went into a panic and ran outside in search of help. He found some chickens pecking in the granary and begged them to help him. They told him not to bother them with mice problems. The rodent went a bit further and saw a goat that was happily grazing in a meadow. After hearing his pleas, the goat snapped that he was neither in the mood nor interested in dealing with trivial issues. Almost on the verge of despair, the mouse went to an ox and cried so it would take pity on him. Without even a glance, the ox yawned and asked him to stop boring him with his nonsense.

In the meantime, the woman was picking up the basket when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her hand: a coiled viper that was next to the mousetrap had bitten her. At the town hospital, she was given very few hours left to live and little by little, her relatives arrived from far-off places to witness her agony. Her husband decided to cook some chickens to shorten their wait. However, the family was numerous and the next day another batch of relatives arrived. At that point, the man did not hesitate to roast the goat. Hours before the woman’s death, people continued arriving at the humble abode. So he decided to sacrifice the ox to feed the guests.

“Had the animals not been so stubborn and selfish,” thought the mouse, “perhaps things would have gone differently, with a more promising end for us all”.

The interdependence of people and nations in a globalised world that has resulted partly from widespread use of the internet presents a significant challenge: the appearance of common problems and the need to resolve them, even in the most diverse socio-political and economic contexts, with joint and articulated actions. It is useless to promote national policies for a technological medium whose architecture is built on unprecedented spatial and temporal coordinates, for which there is apparently no possibility of regulation.

Although each one of us may choose to take care of our own chakra, our destinies – which are inversely proportional to the manner in which information flows on the internet - are lined up like dominoes. If one falls, the rest will inevitably follow. It is therefore necessary for internet governance to include the participation of all countries, so that their interests are represented in the management of the multiple dimensions of this public technological resource. The Digital Solidarity Agenda[1] which was proposed during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) calls for “close national, regional and international cooperation among all stakeholders”.

In reality, the strongest global debate has been taking place in relation to infrastructure, which is the so-called “top level” of the internet. Nonetheless, the issue of content demands the equally urgent attention of international community of users, governments, technicians and, in general, public and private sector actors.

The topic of content is not limited to security issues or economic crimes, but rather proposes numerous concerns related to human rights; the right to communicate, the free circulation of information and freedom of expression. And, insofar as “development is a process of expanding the real freedoms people enjoy (…) it is necessary to conceive individual freedom as social commitment”[2].

Various governmental initiatives – particularly in the United States - have aimed at regulating internet content in the name of morality and decency or national security. Faced with the emergence of cybercrime, the idea that individual rights should be sacrificed has become generalised among some groups. Nevertheless, the internet, unlike any media before it, seems to conceptually and technically confirm that this is neither ethical nor possible.

Stopping a tsunami with one’s hands

“To mention internet content regulation without being anaesthetised is impossible anywhere in the world,” affirms Juan Piaggio, General Manager of the Communication Services Regulatory Unit (URSEC - Unidad Reguladora de Servicios de Comunicaciones). “The problem is that the internet as a network of networks is thought of and designed anarchically – not hierarchically - and is therefore uncontrollable: one does not know where the server that sends things is, one can’t even know the route that the information packets take. If you ban servers, you can do so on your territory, but they will all be at the border”.

URSEC is a decentralised regulatory entity with technical autonomy belonging to Uruguay’s Executive Branch. Its administrative, control and defence functions span the national radioelectric spectrum and telecommunication services. Although it does not have legal authority to regulate content, it can apply sanctions solicited by the Ministry of Education and Culture. An example of this is cases of child pornography.

Piaggio clarified that “in Uruguay the issue of internet content is not being debated at the governmental level (...) We have spoken with the Ministry of National Defence and the Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic exclusively on cyberterrorism and protecting our large servers”.

When consulted on the existence of national regulations to regulate internet content, Carlos Petrella, professor at the Catholic University of Uruguay (Universidad Católica del Uruguay) and technical expert, affirmed that “it works like any other content: you maintain the responsibility of the agents when placing information in the public domain, the same responsibility journalists have when speaking on the radio or on television, or publishing in a newspaper (…) that is to say that the majority of the legislation is through the analogy of content in other media, that is applied to any kind of medium”.

However, Petrella recognised that the internet presents specific difficulties for the application of existing laws. “You have various actors: the owner of the medium, the owner of what is being communicated and the owner of the content (…) unlike what happens in traditional communication media where physical and conceptual management occur in the same place.”

Petrella is convinced that attempts to pre-censor on the network have been proven to be “inefficient and marginal” but that if “you don’t regulate anything, you are going to have to take action after any occurrence that injures political, religious and economic interests (…) Regulations must be created with sound judgment, but without excessive detail, and mechanisms must be put in place to authenticate the responsibility of any transmitter, which is not clear in many cases. Having said that, anyone who sets up a sustainable operation on the internet is identifiable.”

Many cybercrimes are linked to the sexual exploitation of girls, boys and women. This makes the strong inequality of power relations, misogynistic practices and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes evident. One could fall into the temptation of supporting regulatory and censorship mechanisms for these cases.  

The problems that arise are many: in the first place, “there are no global standards to regulate pornography”[3] because there is no global internet governance.

Secondly, in the case of implementing regulation, there are the dangers of using it for less laudable purposes like persecution and political censorship (examples already abound[4]) that threaten the freedoms and new practices of cybercitizens.

Thirdly, the gender-based violence that takes place in the virtual sphere is no more than the reflection of patriarchal cultural values that are still present in day-to-day interactions between men and women. Hence the problem is rooted in the manner in which society is organised rather than in the technological tools it uses. The fight against the trafficking of women, for example, cannot be “an exercise of advanced technology that only ICT experts – who are usually men - can handle”[5]  but rather it must be fought with updated versions of existing laws, with cooperation between countries for joint investigations and including the experience women have accumulated in their long battle against violence.

Piaggio is forceful: “IP addresses constantly change, and their dynamism hinders tracing those who commit crimes on the web (…) You can’t control what is being thought of to be uncontrollable. We can’t stop a tsunami with our hands”.

But his suggestion goes further by considering that the role of the State should not be paternalistic and controlling, but rather educational. “What role do you give citizens in the information society (IS)? Should they exclusively be consumers? Or also generators of content? If you only understand the IS from the point of view of the consumer, you are back at the north-south relationship, because large quantities of internet content are created in the north and are another sign of dependency (…) I understand the knowledge society as access to all the information out there including my own, so I need to generate information as a country and from the perspective of the state, promote public policies for digital inclusion and active policies for local content development”.


Assuming an active role in the generation of content has various facets. In the formal aspect of the language used, English is overrepresented in content published on the internet[6]. This reinforces the production of materials in English, to the detriment of other languages, because of its lingua franca status[7].

On the other hand, amplifying the “voices of those without voice” has been an increased tendency on the web, as it allows for all of us to be potential transmitters/receivers of messages. The democratisation of communication depends on the possibility of making oneself heard without depending on the news agencies of the traditional media.

The women’s movement, for example, grew and was strengthened in the virtual space insofar as it was able to accumulate knowledge and experiences, articulate strategic actions for the attainment of concrete objectives, and publicly denounce situations of gender-based oppression and injustice. The generation of content is a priority for the movement, from the moment that it questions the imposed cultural order and promotes the generation of alternatives for social change.

There is a global concern, in this sense, that has already been captured in various documents, amongst which those generated during the World Summit on the Information Society process and the Association for Progressive Communications Internet Rights Charter stand out. Both proclaim the need to “create and access culturally and linguistically diverse content”[8] for the “development of an Information Society based on the dialogue among cultures and regional and international cooperation (…) an important factor for sustainable development”[9].

For these words to become a reality in the day-to-day practices of citizens, the internet must be understood as a tool for empowerment instead of a threat. From there, we can work both from the governmental perspective as well as from that of social organisations to privilege the individual capacities and liberties that strengthen democratic systems.

[1] Section D, paragraph 27. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). (2003). Geneva Plan of Action. WSIS-03/GENEVA/DOC/5-E

[2] Sen, A. (2000). Development as freedom. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta S.A.

[3] Gossett, J. L. and Byrne, S. (2002). “‘Click Here’: A Content Analysis of Internet Rape Sites”. Gender and Society, Vol. 16, pp. 689-709, October 2002.

[4] In China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and so many other countries denounced by Amnesty International as well as by movements to protect the rights of internet users.

[5] Maltzahn, K. (2005). Digital Dangers, information communication technologies and the trafficking of women. APC Emerging Issues Series. APC Women’s Networking Support Programme.

[6] Internet World Stats. (n.d.). Internet World Users by Language.   [7] Wikipedia (n.d.). Global internet usage.  

[8] Point 9, Association for Progressive Communications. (2006). APC Internet Rights Charter. Association for Progressive Communications.

[9] Section C8, paragraph 23. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). (2003). Geneva Plan of Action. WSIS-03/GENEVA/DOC/5-E

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