Concern for community development or a political game?
A new provision will soon be introduced to the Georgian Constitution. Under it, free Internet access and usage will become a fundamental right, guaranteed by country’s basic law. Like, for example, the right to life, personal freedom and inviolability. This provision is a novelty not only for Georgia, but also for any other countries, because there is no such provision in other countries’ constitutions. So, why does Georgia need that amendment and what will it change?
“Any person shall have a right to free Internet access and usage,” reads Article 17 of a new draft Constitution of Georgia. If the amendments bill is passed, then Georgia’s basic law will become unique in this regard.
The ruling Georgian Dream party initiated the aforesaid constitutional amendments after gaining the constitutional majority in Georgian Parliament following October parliamentary election last year. The Constitutional Commission’s drafted amendments mostly focus on the electoral system and the president’s powers. Those issues have stirred up fierce debates in public, equally as some other initiatives of the majority group. Like, for example, writing down in the Constitution that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, as well as enshrining in the Constitution a ban on selling agricultural land to aliens. Most of the constitutional initiatives put forward by the Georgian Dream party were negatively accessed by both, the opposition and the leading NGOs.
Against this background, the parliamentary majority eagerly accepted a proposal by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) on introduction of a free Internet access provision to the Constitution. And that’s despite the fact that the Georgian Dream ignored most of the NGOs’ remarks.
The Constitutional Commission members explained the need for introduction of the aforesaid innovation as follows: the Internet’s role in public life is rapidly growing and it has a direct influence on the citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Therefore, a special provision in the Constitution aims to ensure protection of those right at a higher level.
Who and how uses internet in Georgia?
According to the ‘Freedom on the Net 2016’, an annual report by the U.S.-based Freedom House watchdog, Georgia is ranked among completely ‘free’ countries. 45% of Georgia’s total population of 3,7million people have Internet access. Relying on the aforesaid report, the information with political and social content is freely disseminated and isn’t blocked in Georgia. According to the report, there is no pressure on bloggers/ICT users in Georgia and none of them has been ever arrested in the country.
The only exception is Tsulatdze’s case. Internet user Sulkhan Tsuladze was detained for a month for a forum post describing a fictional attack on the US Ambassador to Georgia, which online activists said was intended as a joke.
As it is pointed out in the Freedom House report, Georgians can freely use Internet, access to online content isn’t blocked in the country and there aren’t any laws allowing online censorship.
Though, there were isolated cases of blocking Internet-resources in Georgia. It happened twice over the recent period- in November 2015, the National Security Service blocked the entire WordPress platform for a short period in an attempt to restrict access to a WordPress-hosted website that was disseminating videos by a Georgian pro-Islamic State group.
The second case was reported in March 2016, when YouTube was blocked twice by the authorities following the release of sex videos featuring Georgian politicians.
Giorgi Jakhaia, a prominent Georgian blogger writing under a nickname ‘Sukhumi’, believes that Internet has become as vital for a human being as food or sleep. As he pointed out in the interview with JAMnews, Internet is rapidly developing in Georgia and nobody has ever encroached upon the right to Internet freedom in the country.
12 % of rural population are unaware of Net’s existence
Despite a growth in overall rate of Georgian internet-users, the country’s regions are still lagging far behind the process. This imbalance between the capital and the province is evidenced by particular figures.
According to the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), as of 2013, 46% of the population in the capital used the Internet services daily. The Internet usage rate made 28% in other cities, while in rural areas it totaled just 7%.
The same research revealed that around 12% of the rural population are unaware of the Internet’s existence, while 67% have never used PCs or other gadgets for Internet connection.
As for the mobile Internet, this service has been gaining popularity since 2014, with its users increasing by 300,000 annually.
According to the 2016 report by the Georgian National Communications Commission, the number of mobile Internet users in the country reached almost 2,5million, which is four times more than in 2010 (though, it doesn’t imply that 2,5million people have Internet access in Georgia, simply some people use several mobile devices at once).
On 27 June, 2016, Georgia joined the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution, under which Internet access is recognized as a fundamental and basic human right.
Thus, alike other countries, Georgia has assumed a commitment not to prevent dissemination of information online or restrict access thereto.
The document particularly stresses the need ‘to ensure protection of freedom of expression, privacy and other human rights online, including through national democratic, transparent institutions, based on the rule of law, in a way that ensures freedom and security on the Internet.’
Overall 53 countries, including the USA, UK, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands etc., have joined the resolution.
The resolution puts the countries under obligation to improve their legislation in this regard, though it doesn’t require introduction of constitutional amendments.
Key argument: the neighbors’ bad practice
Levan Avalishvili, the IDFI founder and key initiator of the amendment, justifies the need for its introduction by the regional context.
“Georgia should think of the future risks, especially against the background that Internet freedom is restricted in Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Georgia should become the first country in the region to protect Internet freedom at such a high level,” said Avalishvili.
According to Avalishvili, another argument is that there is a lack of balance between Tbilisi and the regions in terms of Internet expansion.
“This constitutional provision will lay the state under an obligation to take more effective measures to ensure Internet expansion and free access to it. This will accelerate expansion of Internet throughout the country and will improve its quality,” believes Avalishvili.
How can the state help further expand Internet access?
Experts have an unambiguous answer to this question: a relevant legislative base should be established to make this field more attractive for the private sector.
“Let’s take, for example, public broadcasting. The state undertakes to provide its coverage to 85% of the population. The same goal should be set with regard to expansion of Internet access,” Avalishvili told JAMnews reporter.
Internet freedom issue has become one of those rare exceptions, on which the members of the Constitutional Commission, comprising government officials, opposition and NGOs, have reached almost absolute consensus.
The authorities like this new initiative. The parliamentary majority group believes that the amendment will improve country’s international prestige.
“Georgia is going to make one more progressive decision. To a certain extent it’s a far-reaching initiative,” said Irakli Sesiashvili, the Chair of the Georgian Parliament’s Defense and Security Committee.
Criticism: ‘Shall we rejoice over not being the North Korea?’
Giorgi Akhvlediani, a member of the non-parliamentary ‘Democratic Movement-United Georgia’ party, was the only member of the Constitutional Commission, who spoke out against the initiative. In his opinion, the Constitution is designed for the issues that are important from the legal point of view, whereas the Internet freedom related issues should be regulated by the ordinary legislation.
Meanwhile, some opposition politicians claim, there are certain political motives behind the government’s readiness to back the initiative.
“Are they trying to tell us that we should be happy for not being the North Korea?’ Petre Tsiskarishvili, ex-MP and member of the opposition United National Movement (the ruling party in 2004-2012) wondered in the interview with JAMnews.
He believes, there’s been no need for introduction of the proposed amendment to the Constitution, and that the government officials are thus trying to portray themselves as democrats. According to Tsiskarishvili, the parliamentary majority seeks to tailor the Constitution to their wishes and interests, whereas ‘such trivial issues serve to ‘ennoble’ the draft constitution and divert public attention from more important problems.’
The politician believes that despite all those attempts, the real problems surrounding the draft Constitution won’t be buried in oblivion and the authorities’ aforesaid strategy won’t work.