The UN Risks Normalizing Internet Censorship

The United Nations’ main internet governance body looks set to host its next international forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2025, the UN may take its discussions on the future of an open internet to Russia. Holding the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), back to back, in authoritarian countries notorious for their surveillance and censorship of the internet risks making “a joke of the whole system,” one advocate says.

While the UN has yet to formally announce the host countries for either meeting, Saudi Arabia’s minister of communications and information technology, Abdullah Alswaha, seemed to let the news slip at this year’s forum in Tokyo, Japan, which began on Sunday and ends Thursday.

In a short speech before the plenary, Alswaha ran through some key issues facing the IGF, including generative artificial intelligence and the digital divide. He proposed to the attendees that “we continue this dialog at Riyadh IGF ‘24.” He repeated that idea again at the end of his speech, leaving attendees buzzing.

“It’s extremely problematic,” Barbora Bukovská, senior director for law and policy at human rights organization Article 19, tells WIRED. She learned the news on Tuesday from colleagues in Tokyo. “Their human rights record and their record on digital freedoms should disqualify them from having it.”

In recent years, Riyadh has engaged in digital surveillance of dissidents, administering the death penalty against citizens who called out its human rights record online. The Saudi regime also ordered the 2018 extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Freedom House, a pro-democracy nonprofit, assesses that Saudi Arabia maintains one of the world’s most restrictive and censored internet systems, only marginally better than Russia.

“The IGF is a community, it’s a multi-stakeholder event,” Bukovská says. “You are supposed to have not just governments and companies, but also civil society, activists, and so on.” She says it will be difficult to invite democracy and open internet advocates to Riyadh. “How are they supposed to participate in Saudi Arabia, when you can be targeted by spyware, and with all kinds of restrictions? So I think it’s extremely problematic.”

The IGF is a relatively new organization, having been set up in 2006. Its purpose is more advisory than regulatory, serving as a chance for countries, corporations, civil society organizations, and activists to discuss and debate various aspects of how the internet itself is run. “It’s quite interesting and important for shaping the responses on certain issues,” Bukovská says.

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