The battle for the web

States, companies and users dispute the meanings of the internet States, companies and users dispute the meanings of the internet

The 26-year-old American cyberactivist Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January 2013. Weighing heavy on his shoulders were charges filed by the U.S. government that could have landed him 35 years in prison. The alleged crime: hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers and releasing 4.8 million copyright-protected academic articles.

Swartz is, for many, the first casualty in a war between States, companies and users for the definition of the meanings of the internet – a crucial space for the production and dissemination of information and, therefore, for the guarantee of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

This intricate dispute, which has pitted the characteristic freedom of the internet against the need for a global governance to regulate the interests involved, is the topic of two articles published in the “Information and Human Rights” section of Issue 18 of Sur Journal.

“There no longer seems to be any doubt that one of the principal conflicts of the twenty-first century centers around the sharing of knowledge and cultural goods,” writes Sérgio Amadeu da Silveira, a professor at the Federal University of the ABC Region and a civil society representative on Brazil’s Internet Management Committee.

In his article in Sur Journal, Amadeu argues that Swartz’s death is directly associated with the stiffening of intellectual property laws and the attempts by the copyright industry to control the sources of creation and knowledge. “The mainstream software market has been structured around a model of remuneration of property based on the denial of access to the knowledge of its logically nested routines.”

Freedom is not enough

This context in which economic interests take precedence over the right of access to information has been strengthened by the limited appreciation that public and private organizations have of the internet, ignoring its importance for development, the reduction of inequalities and the strengthening of democracy.

One clear example of this tendency is the concept of Internet Freedom, which prospered in the U.S. government and in civil society organizations concerned with avoiding state censorship, protecting the privacy of users and preventing measures that restrict the circulation of content on the web – an important effort, but one that ignores, for example, the need to subject copyright to the public interest.

“An Internet policy based on human rights should be sustained on a comprehensive and global view of those rights, including not only freedom of expression and right to privacy, but also social, economic, and cultural rights, including the right to development,” argues Alberto Cerda, a professor at the University of Chile and director of international affairs at the NGO Direitos Digitais, in his article in Sur 18.

According to Cerda, the idea of Internet Freedom deliberately ignores how the increasing protection of intellectual property affects the realization of rights. “Especially in developing countries, copyright affects the realization of the right to education, by preventing the use of content without the authorization of and payment to the copyright holder,” reads the article.

Internet governance

This, argues Cerda, is why civil society must keep supporting efforts to build a global internet governance. Calls for limitations on the role of government in this area overlook the fact that “the State can act as a guarantor of freedoms, in particular against the impact of the concentration of private power over our freedoms”.

“A comprehensive approach to human rights recognizes this capacity in the State and, indeed, demands from it the necessary intervention to protect and promote the rights of the people,” he adds.

This is the idea behind Brazil’s so-called Civil Framework for the Internet – also known as the “Constitution for the Internet”. This bill has consolidated, after a long process of consultation with civil society, concepts such as net neutrality, which prevents service providers from changing the quality of the service depending on the type of web content being accessed. The text of the bill still needs to be approved by Congress, but it is already an international benchmark on the subject.

According to Sérgio Amadeu, an important figure in the construction of the Civil Framework, if the internet remains open and free from the control of telecommunications companies, the potential for collaboration, interaction and digital file sharing will continue to grow. “Aaron was a major casualty of this war. But millions of young people do not live and have never lived off proprietary licenses.”

Sur 18

In addition to the section on “Information and Human Rights”, issue 18 of Sur Journal also carries articles on other important human rights topics, such as the impact of large-scale infrastructure projects and mega-events in Brazil, the right to land as a human right and right to health litigation in the city of São Paulo.

Access here all the articles of Sur Journal 18.


In his presentation at TEDxRuaMonteAlegre, Sérgio Amadeu spoke about the relationship between information and human rights and the importance of a Civil Framework to regulate the internet.

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