FeaturedInternationalVolume 13 Issue # 24

Emerging threats to internet freedom

Internet freedom is under threat again. Moves are under way in various parts of the world to curtail and abridge the use of World Wide Web. A European parliament committee last week voted for legislation that internet pioneers fear will turn the web into “a tool for surveillance and control”. In a key vote on a draft law to overhaul EU copyright rules, the parliament’s legal affairs committee voted for measures that would require Google, Microsoft and other such entities to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials.

Over the last decade, the narrative about the internet has shifted. What was once seen as a tool that would inevitably cripple corruption, topple dictators, and liberate minorities, the internet is now seen as a technology that enables surveillance, amplifies hate speech, and displaces labour. The challenges are real and could imperil the internet’s enduring potential.

The internet evolved as a paradox: government-funded research and development led to technology that flourished as a free tool in the public domain to share information. Eventually, commercial initiatives came along and expanded the audience by building infrastructure and generating revenue. The internet’s commercial growth in the 1990s coincided with an era of global deregulatory zeal.

Given its unlimited potential for data collection, it poses a growing threat to today’s authoritarian regimes and information monopolists. Bloggers continue to expose uncomfortable truths, journalists use encrypted apps to communicate with whistleblowers and vulnerable minorities are able to seek and receive support across borders.

Among the many research surveys to assess the threat to internet freedom, the most credible is the Freedom of the Net report annually published by the Freedom House, an NGO based in Washington. Using a comprehensive set of indicators, it has repeatedly reported declining metrics for internet users in many parts of the world since 2011. Its latest publication assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 per cent of internet users worldwide. The report primarily focuses on developments that occurred between in 2016-2017.

According to the report, propaganda, emotional manipulation, paid trolls, automated bots and widespread surveillance are all strangling the immense potential of the internet. It finds that more than 30 countries employ opinion shapers to spread government views. Also, an increasing number of governments are resorting to blanket shutdowns of communications, especially on mobile phones.

For many people, freedom of the press or the internet is a subjective term. The main question is: How do you define a free internet? That would mean an internet without major government censorship, an internet where the government does not block or filter internet content, anything related to politics or human rights or social issues. Internet should also be free of government surveillance and persecution of people who write online.

A representative of the Freedom House recently told the media that for the seventh consecutive year “our study showcases that freedom has been in decline. This year in particular, that decline has been due to very worrisome threats regarding government manipulation of social media”. Governments do this through different means – through the use of paid pro-government commentators, online propaganda, the spread of fake news and other methods.

Researchers have identified several recent trends that are quite worrisome. One is that more and more governments are using internet shutdowns around elections or around anti-government protests to stifle dissent. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of people who are being attacked for just posting their anti-government views online. The report says that in 30 countries out of 65 that were surveyed, someone was physically attacked just for writing on social media about their political beliefs. And in eight countries people were killed on similar grounds.

More and more governments are also using cyber attacks against their critics.  One reason for increased government crackdown on internet freedom is that more and more people are going online. Just a few years ago only a small fraction of each government’s population had access to the internet, but now the internet has become how most people communicate, how they conduct business, obtain education, and how they organise themselves politically. And many governments have now taken notice, and they fear the power of the internet.

As internet penetration has grown in each country, governments – particularly authoritarian governments – are trying to suppress people’s free speech and ability to organise. Eight years ago, it was countries like China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia that were some of the leaders when it came to internet restrictions. But now we’re seeing it in more and more countries, in part because some of the tools that enable this repression are readily available.

When it comes to online manipulation, a lot of governments now are actually learning from other countries, like China, how repression is done. About 12 years ago, it was China which first started paying people to post pro-government comments. But many governments, including those in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, have caught up and they have learned and implemented within their own borders.

In the Freedom House report, for the sixth year in a row, Pakistan was termed “not free”. In Pakistan, the report said that mobile internet services were shut down for more than a year in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas starting in June 2016. It went on to say that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, enacted in August 2016, introduced stronger censorship and surveillance powers with inadequate oversight.

“Internet regulation by the government and prosecution with regard to online speech has seen a marked increase,” according to the report. There have been detentions on the basis of online speech. There have also been internet shutdowns in more remote parts of the country which means that marginalised populations have been denied access to the internet. The report says Pakistan’s Internet Freedom Status for the year 2017 had in fact worsened from that in 2016. The overall ranking for Pakistan closed at 71 out of 100 (100 being the worst) for the year, two points down from previous year’s ranking.