Guardians of the web

Ekaterina Bystrova

From spying on ordinary citizens to censoring Google search findings, governments are using the Internet in ways that could not have been dreamed of 25 years ago when the web first came to be. World Wide Web Foundation CEO Anne Jellema talks about her hopes for the internet’s future

In the early 2000s, the idea of countries like the USA and the UK spying on their citizens – and even monitoring the phone calls of other democratic leaders – would have made a good plot for a conspiracy film. Today, online surveillance is a familiar issue, but just a few years ago the idea had barely even touched most internet users’ minds. 

“I remember being at a conference just before Edward Snowden revealed the first of his leaks and at the conference there were experienced technology experts from around the world,” recalls Anne Jellema, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation. “There was a representative from Microsoft, I think, on the stage and he was asked a question by someone in the room, and he explained that, because Microsoft is a US company and its servers are located in the US, they have to comply with US law and turn over data under the terms of US law to intelligence agencies on anybody in the world. And there, a palpable wave of shock went through the room as the implications of that sunk in.” 

What few people had thought through is the fact that even multinational companies are registered somewhere in the world and the laws of that country do apply to them. 

“The internet is not quite as virtual as we think it is,” Jellema adds in a wry tone. 

The internet is a universal network that can function independently of physical national borders. But governments are able to enforce national boundaries at the level of infrastructure and regulation, Jellema explains. They are able to shut down mammoth sites like YouTube, demand that companies share user data, and regulate the market for internet access in such a way that there’s a lot of competition and everyone can afford to get online, or in such a way that there’s no competition and it is prohibitively expensive to get online. 

“There is a rising tide of governments around the world that are trying to restrict what people can say and do on the web in all kinds of different ways, and in some cases it is downright censorship and blocking. But that’s very crude, so governments are also getting much more subtle about the ways they are trying to close down democratic space on the internet.” 

Some governments are employing economic censorship to prevent their citizens from accessing certain online services, while others have taken to trolling the net, hiring people to post content favourable to them in order to blow any dissent out of the water. Mass surveillance is just the latest in a series of major limitations imposed on the online world, restricting people’s freedom of expression through the implication that somewhere online lurks a virtual Big Brother. 

“It is frighteningly easy for governments to track what we’re saying, what we’re doing, who we’re talking to,” Jellema says. “While governments need to have compliance from internet service providers to monitor user data and activity, they are able to demand this and the evidence says that they have been demanding it for a very long time. With modern surveillance technology it is incredibly easy and cheap to collect vast amounts of data on almost everybody. And then you don’t have a human being listening to all of those call records or manually reading through the emails, you have software that mines that data for you.” 

One part of a possible solution is the end-to-end encryption of all internet service provider (ISP) traffic, meaning that the data passing through the system is strongly encrypted at every stage along the way. Edward Snowden referenced the same idea at the South by South West festival in Texas in March 2014, saying that end-to-end encryption would make bulk surveillance impossible. 

“It may not make it impossible, but it would certainly make it very difficult and expensive to implement,” Jellema says. 

Every year, the Web Foundation publishes the Web Index report, which covers 81 countries worldwide. The report looks at the countries that have the weakest controls and space guards for online surveillance and spying, and at countries where restrictions on content are the most pervasive. 

“The disturbing thing that we found was that only about five per cent of these countries met the best practice standards for oversight of surveillance. Even the ones that scored very well may have done so because we had incomplete information, as more and more has been coming to light over the past year about exactly how pervasive this surveillance is,” Jellema says. “There really are very few countries in the world where citizens can just sit back and relax knowing that their freedoms online are fully protected.” 

But the world’s citizens have not been taking this news lying down. A surge of grassroots activism has recently erupted in countries around the world, from Turkey and Jordan to the Philippines, the USA and Europe. People everywhere are starting to demand democratic accountability and oversight. The ability to monitor people is one of the most easily abused powers that any state could have – but it is also necessary for public security, and while legislation against mass surveillance does not guarantee that it will stop, it would mean that those who are responsible could be held accountable. 

Furthermore, a distinction must be drawn between the blanket collection of data on an entire population and the surveillance of individual suspects. There is little evidence to suggest that the kind of dragnet surveillance being used online has enabled more criminals to be caught than traditional intelligence records, which require there to be a rationale for tailing a given suspect. 

“In most countries there is a procedure in place for tracking criminal behaviour and that is that the law enforcement or intelligence agency has to obtain a warrant and to show due cause. We think that there’s no reason that the same protections shouldn’t apply online as apply offline,” says Jellema. 

Jellema first got involved with development work when she was living in South Africa in 1991-96, the years just after Mandela was released. Although she arrived to do academic research, she soon became very interested in practical problems, such as the issues surrounding land and housing following the end of Apartheid. She now has more than 15 years of experience in development work and human rights campaigning, having worked as ActionAid’s international director of policy and campaigns in 2006-12, overseeing the organisation’s global programming on women’s rights, education and food rights. It was this pursuit of global equity in accessibility that would eventually lead her to the Web Foundation. 

“In so many instances around the world, you find that people are poor and disempowered. At the root of that is that they don’t have a say and they don’t have access to information. That was a constant theme in my career and getting involved with internet issues was just the most recent iteration that that quest has taken for me,” Jellema says. 

Internet broadband is becoming increasingly available worldwide, but cost remains a barrier to access for many people in the developing world. The Web Foundation sees the issue of affordable access as being just as important to the web’s future as freedom of expression and online privacy. “One thing that absolutely every country can do is ensure that there’s healthy competition in every segment of the market so that prices can drop to a level that almost everybody can afford.” 

She suggests that a comparison may be drawn with access to water or electricity: no one expects the state to provide these utilities for free and, in fact, there is a lot of benefit to having a market in something like electricity. But there is a social case in saying that, for very poor people, even a low cost for electricity can inhibit their use of it, while a lack of affordable water can result in outbreaks of cholera. A lack of affordable internet access does not result in outbreaks of disease, but it does impact on education and livelihoods. 

“You see that people who do have access to the internet have a huge advantage over those who don’t, in any area from walking to work to being able to influence policies,” Jellema explains. 

In 2011, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue was reported as having designated access to the internet as a basic human right. To date, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France and Greece have enshrined universal access to the internet in legislation, while Spain has guaranteed to offer reasonably priced access to its citizens. But while internet access can go a long way towards propagating the development agenda, Jellema warns that we shouldn’t see it as the be all and end all. 

“It’s a mistake to think of technology as a silver bullet or panacea, but the interesting thing about the internet is that it enables people to connect, not just to information but to one another, so much more easily and quickly and extensively than was ever possible before,” Jellema says. “So if you think about situations where it is both very difficult and very dangerous even for people to organise and to try to speak out and take action, the internet can change that in all kinds of interesting ways.” 

Those in developing countries have been able to utilise the internet for a variety of grassroots initiatives, from online community radio to small business start-ups and charities. But these opportunities are under threat from ISPs, which are able to discriminate between different types of traffic on grounds of profitability. The principle of net neutrality prohibits such bias and, if it is respected, it allows a huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish online. But if it isn’t, then the market for internet services becomes dominated by a few gigantic companies, choking off local initiatives. What is necessary, then, is to diversify the sector, increase the number of providers and increase competition – not just to make service more affordable, but also to combat the increasingly relevant issue of mass surveillance. 

In March this year, Berners-Lee delivered a heartfelt proposal for the forging of a Magna Carta for the web – national bills of rights informed by a global consensus on the norms and freedoms that should be respected online. Brazil became the first to pass such a bill of rights on 26 March this year. The Marco Civil da Internet will safeguard users’ fundamental rights of free expression and privacy online. 

The Web We Want Campaign is an initiative aiming to put Berners-Lee’s vision into practice. It exists primarily to amplify, connect and support the different local efforts that have sprung up worldwide to advance an open, free and private internet. The Web Foundation is one of the founders of the campaign and one of its two co-ordinating organisations. 

“We hope that by working together we can all achieve a much greater impact. Taking off from Tim’s call for a Magna Carta and the huge amount of interest and support that that’s received, we will be organising a year of action throughout 2014 and into 2015 to try to get ordinary web users around the world to engage with these issues,” says Jellema. 

And it is teamwork and group action that are vital to the preservation of internet integrity – the biggest and most fundamental threat to the free and open use of the web is user apathy. Most people have grown complacent about the state of the web, an open platform that allows people the freedom to express their creativity and ideas while enabling them to choose who is able to see what they post and how much personal data they give up. 

“If we continue to take that for granted I think there’s a very big danger right now that we will see it start to disappear, either through increasing commercial control over what we do and the data that we generate online, or through increasing governmental control,” Jellema warns. 

The debates surrounding internet surveillance, censorship and security are not novel – they are taking place all over the world. One difficulty, however, is that they’re taking place in the tech world and online, among geeks and security experts. But this issue doesn’t just concern specialists; everyone in the world has a stake and everyone must have a say.


The Web We Want

The World Wide Web Foundation was established in 2009 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web. The organisation seeks to tackle the fundamental obstacles to realising his vision of an open web that is available to everyone.

Anne Jellema became the foundation’s CEO in May 2012.

“The web right now is really at the frontier of the struggle for democratic rights in many countries around the world,” Jellema explains. The Web Foundation believes that the internet is the most powerful facilitator of communication to have ever existed and the potential it provides for global co-operation and participation are unparalleled. However, it is only a minority of people who are part of the conversation – and they are generally urban, male and affluent.

Even with the spread of mobile internet technology, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population remains unconnected. Outside of the developing world, governmental controls and restrictive commercial practices threaten what people can and can’t do online.

The Web Foundation seeks to establish the open web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely. Its the Web We Want Campaign ( works to further the foundation’s ideals of maintaining a free and open web.

The Web Foundation relies on donations for its funding, with major donors including Vodafone, the Ford Foundation, the Rockerfeller Foundation and – perhaps unsurprisingly – Google.

For more information, visit


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