FeaturedInternationalVolume 13 Issue # 09

Shrinking frontiers of internet freedom

Over the past decade, the issue of internet freedom has been at the centre of a heated international debate on how free the flow of information should be. Now comes a new report from the US non-governmental organisation Freedom House which says that freedom on the internet is in steady decline.

The report for the year 2017, which was researched by the Digital Rights Founda­tion (DRF) and research analysts at the Freedom House, assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 per cent of internet users worldwide. The report primarily focuses on developments that occurred between June 2016 and May 2017.

According to the report, propaganda, emotional manipulation, paid trolls, automated bots and widespread surveillance are all strangling the idealistic 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. National and regional governments are using cheap and convenient off-the-shelf tools for internet surveillance against their political foes.

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 Al Jazeera 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, through computerised bots, through online propaganda, through the spread of fake news and other methods.

According to the Freedom House report, a lot of people have been focusing on government manipulation lately, led by the Russian government, of elections in the United States, but that is a global issue, much bigger than what’s been happening in Washington. It has been found that 18 countries around the world have seen manipulation around election time over the past year alone.

Apart from that, researchers have identified several other 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 examined, someone was physically attacked, in some cases quite brutally, just for writing on social media about their political beliefs. And in eight countries people were killed for similar issues.

More and more governments are also using cyberattacks 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.

For example, when it comes to certain surveillance tools, there are many companies – including many companies from the United States and from other Western countries – that sell surveillance tools to some of the oppressive governments, who are then able to buy them in this very loosely regulated international market. And then they’re able to use them for repression and to suppress critical voices, including online journalists and other dissidents.

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 who first started paying people to post pro-government comments. In fact, it was through this emergence of the so-called 50-cent party, where people are paid 50 cents for posting each pro-government comment, that this trend caught on. Many governments, including those in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, have caught up and they have learned and now have implemented within their own borders.

What is the state of internet freedom in Pakistan?

For the sixth year in a row, Pakistan was termed “not free” by the Freedom House in its Freedom on the Net report. In Pakistan, the report said that mobile internet services were shut down for more than a year in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) 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.

Key findings of the report highlighted cases where a teenager was arrested for allegedly “liking” a blasphemous post on Facebook in September 2016, a court awarded the death penalty in a separate Facebook blasphemy case in June this year and five bloggers, known for criticising authorities and religious militancy, were abducted in January — one later said that a government institution had detained and tortured him. It also added that hackers stepped up attempts to target government critics and attacked a major media website.

“Internet regulation by the government and prosecution with regard to online speech has seen a marked increase,” said Nighat Dad, the executive director of DRF. “The coverage period of this report includes the electronic crimes act which criminalises a lot of online speech. 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 said that Pakistan’s Internet Freedom Status for the year 2017 had in fact worsened from that in 2016 with the ranking of 18 out of 25 for Obstacles to Access for 2016, the bar sits at 19 for the year 2017; and Violations of User Rights which sat at 31 out of 40 for the year 2016; it’s now at 32. The overall ranking for Pakistan closes at 71 out of 100 (100 being the worst) for this year, two points down from last year’s ranking. The report seeks to address failings of the state in protecting the rights of citizens by compiling and analysing evidence that activists and citizens concerned can use to push for greater democracy online as well as offline.