OPINION: The global decline of internet freedoms demands a global response

Tuesday, 19 November 2019 07:30 GMT

A woman covers her right eye as she holds a lantern during the Mid-Autumn Festival, in Sha Tin, Hong Kong, China September 13, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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As censorship, surveillance and disinformation campaigns continue to gain momentum around the world, fundamental digital rights are being dramatically eroded

report published by a U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, has found that global internet freedoms have declined for the ninth consecutive year. As censorship, surveillance and disinformation campaigns continue to gain momentum around the world, fundamental digital rights are being dramatically eroded. 

According to the report, 71% of the world’s population now live in countries where individuals have been arrested or imprisoned for posting social, political or religious content online and just under half live in countries where authorities have intentionally disrupted access to the internet or mobile networks, almost always for political purposes.

The decline of digital rights has been encouraged by the unregulated diffusion of technologies creating digital dystopias. Today, authoritarian and democratic regimes alike are adopting new measures to suppress and surveille citizens online.

Eroding internet freedoms undermines democratic procedures, endangers the freedom of the press and jeopardizes the safety of citizens, both online and off. 

Companies in the West have played a pivotal role in this process and to adequately tackle it, they must recognise both their complicity in, and ability to challenge, the dynamic. This requires working alongside civil society and nation states to create robust, enforceable international standards to help safeguard individuals’ human rights online. 

Social media platforms were once thought to provide radical new opportunities for civic engagement and a broadening of freedom of expression. Now, however, they are devolving into avenues for state surveillance, the dissemination of politically motivated mis/disinformation, and the polarisation of public and political discourse.   

According to the Freedom on the Net report, 40 out of 65 countries investigated have initiated social media monitoring programmes in the past year, and almost 60% of the world’s population live in countries where authorities have attempted to manipulate online discussions in their favour.

Certainly, mass surveillance and digital manipulation are no longer confined to the realm of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes or fictional worlds. However, the platforms used for such practices are almost exclusively based in one country, the United States. 

Given their unparalleled influence around the world, these companies must work collaboratively with civil society to ensure that their platforms remain tools for empowerment, rather than oppression.

This requires establishing resolute measures to counter disinformation, increased monitoring of how their platforms are being used and abused by regimes around the world, investing more into native-language content moderation teams, and attending to the demands of civil society organisations.

Companies throughout the democratic world have also played a significant role in the creation and distribution of highly targeted and invasive surveillance technology.

The rise of this technology has had a chilling effect on global human rights standards and emboldened authoritarian regimes in their pursuits of monitoring opposition figures, suppressing political dissent and, ultimately, maintaining power.

The Israel-based NSO Group, a private cyberarms company that is part-owned by Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm based in London, has been particularly active in this field. Their ‘Pegasus’ spyware -- which can take complete control of a target’s phone, access all of its files and trace its location --  has been found in India, Hong Kong, Turkey and 42 other countries, according to the University of Toronto’s research lab, Citizen Lab.

This is far from the first time a company based in a supposedly democratic country has facilitated the global decline of digital rights. Companies from the U.K.ItalyFrance and many others have also been involved in the distribution of dual-use technologies that have weakened digital privacy, often with very real physical consequences.

In a bid to tackle the trend, the U.N Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, called for a global moratorium on the sale of surveillance technology, noting that “States and industry are collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals and organisations that are essential to democratic life.”

Despite this, the surveillance market continues unabated, giving further evidence to the need to establish binding standards, empowering supranational bodies and fostering a collaborative approach whereby the private sector, civil society and nation states can work effectively together to protect human rights online.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for a global movement that stresses the intertwined nature of citizens’ physical and digital lives.

The first step of this process requires the actors involved to be open about their role and agency in the decline of internet freedoms, followed by a concerted effort to work collaboratively across divides to safeguard digital rights.

If not, digital dystopias may soon become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Samuel Woodhams is Global Digital Rights Lead at the digital privacy group and VPN review website, Top10VPN. He has written for CNN, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and Just Security on issues of censorship, disinformation and surveillance.