Net neutrality protestors bundled out of UN conference

Efforts to protest in Brazil falter

Efforts to protest Facebook's project at the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) being held in Brazil this week were shut down by United Nations security staff.

A video of the protest – carried out during an opening speech by Brazil's communication minister André Figueiredo – shows around 10 protestors holding up messages in Portuguese and English complaining that the service was a violation of net neutrality.

When a second group tries to unfurl a large banner that reads "free basic = free of basic right" with a large Facebook thumb pointing down, UN security staff appear on the scene and start to pull all the signs down.

The protest did not interrupt the minister's speech and the protestors were escorted from the room and their banners confiscated. However, the fact that the protest was shut down prompted complaints online, especially since other protests over the controversial service in Brazil have been allowed to carry on unimpeded.

The difference is that since the conference is being run under UN auspices, the conference center is officially UN territory during the meeting.

Youtube Video

The protest was also referenced later on in the opening ceremony by one of the speakers, Joana Varon, a Researcher at the Centre for Technology and Society, and Founder of Coding Rights.

"Let us not only discuss freely, let us all protest freely," she told attendees. "Some civil society representatives are being harassed and taken out of venue by security due to an attempt to protest 'free basics.' This is unacceptable in the same context where we are discussing free speech. Let people who cannot be on stage also express their key questions in front of high level panels like this."

Why the protest?

The service – developed and led by Facebook – allows customers of certain mobile networks to access a number of services while having to pay for the data that they use. Those services include Wikipedia, BBC News, Facebook, and a range of local news and sports results providers.

The service requires you to use special apps on your phone or Facebook's website and has been launched across Africa.

However, it has attracted criticism, with many in India and Brazil complaining that the service gives advantages to large corporations and limits smaller companies. An open letter from 67 digital rights groups argued that Facebook was "improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services."

It also complained that the service was advertised as "the internet" but was in fact a limited group of services approved by Facebook and ISPs. "In its present conception, violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation," the letter complained.

Previous protests

It is far from the first time the IGF has witnessed protests and complaints.

At the very first IGF in Athens in 2006, a controversy blew up when the representative of the Chinese government was openly mocked when he claimed his country did not censor the internet. The normal diplomatic rules in place at the UN did not stretch to the broader internet community.

Three years later in Egypt's Sharm El-Sheikh, UN security guards removed another banner, this time for a book launch about China's Great Firewall. The UN guards asked the organization behind the book to remove the banner in case it offended Chinese officials. They refused and the banner was pulled down amid protests. The event was also captured on camera.

And last year, the IGF in Istanbul was boycotted by some attendees who held a parallel event in protest at Turkey's recent efforts to censor the internet, including blocking Twitter. ®

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