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Gathering clouds over digital freedom?

By Sara Yasin / 11 March, 2013

The debate over the direction of the web has just started, and contradictory messages that need careful scrutiny are emerging from governments and corporations alike, says Kirsty Hughes

This article was originally published on Open Democracy, as a part of a week-long series on the future digital freedom guest-edited by Index

Threats to digital freedom are growing just as the number of people accessing the internet is taking off, with millions more likely to join the digital world through mobiles and smartphones in the coming years.

The range of challenges is wide: from state censorship, including firewalls and the imposition of network or country-wide filters, to increasing numbers of takedown requests from governments, companies and individuals, corporate hoovering up of private data, growing surveillance of electronic communications, and criminalisation of speech on social media.

The rapid growth of threats to our digital freedom, in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes, means that the next few years could prove to be a watershed period determining whether the net remains a free space or not. Defending our freedom online means taking action now — beginning with understanding the nature of the threats and who lies behind them.

Demotix | Firoz Ahmed | All rights reserved.

Governments send mixed messages
In democracies such as the US, UK, Sweden, India or Brazil, governments and politicians will often make stirring calls to defend digital freedom, emphasising that fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy apply online as much as off. But faced with temptations, such as the growing technological ease of mass population surveillance — from mobile phones to internet usage, web searches and social media chat — too many governments in democracies are starting to look at the sort of mass gathering of communications data that previously only authoritarian regimes would consider.

This leads to strange contradictions in government policy stances. In the UK, the government has temporarily withdrawn its proposed “snoopers’ charter” (the Communications Data Bill) in the face of swingeing criticism from an MPs’ scrutiny committee and from wider civil society. The Bill in its proposed form would have represented the most extensive mass surveillance of a population’s activities in the digital world of any democracy.

Yet at the same time, the UK along with the US, Germany and many other European countries has stood firm against attempts by China and the Russia, with some support from an array of other countries, to introduce top-down global control of the internet. Instead the UK government, along with many other (though not all) democracies, has argued for the current more “multistakeholder” model where no one body, country or group controls the net. The Indian government wobbled to a disturbing extent on this before refusing to go along with China and Russia at the major international telecoms summit in Dubai last December, in their push for this top down control.

Countries such as China and Iran have, unsurprisingly, been in the vanguard of those trying to build firewalls, block websites, and in myriad ways limit, control and monitor their population’s use of, and access to, the web. Yet the number of countries limiting the internet in some way has grown sharply in the last few years. Some of the limits introduced may seem unimportant, such as the Danish government having a country-wide internet block on their population accessing gaming sites in other countries (not for censorship reasons but to preserve the Danish monopoly on this profitable business). But the more the internet is filtered at network or country level, the less free it becomes.

There will always be arguments why a particular filter is necessary — to tackle child porn, to protect children and young adults from legal adult porn, to tackle crime and terrorism, to stop offence. Filtering and blocking sites always run the risk of over-blocking, of hiding not stopping a problem, and of being used for reasons beyond those stated.

Unless governments stand up for free speech, there can be segments of the public who demand limits on speech that undermine free expression as a fundamental right. One key example of this is the growing sensitivity of many people to offence. Yet there is no right not to be offended, and one person’s offence is another’s honest argument or piece of creative art. In the UK and India, we have recently seen arrests and prosecutions for supposedly offensive comments or photos and other postings on social media (in the case of these two countries relating to the common root of a 1930s English law that criminalised ‘grossly offensive’ phone, and then electronic, communications). There is now growing concern and debate about this criminalisation of mostly harmless social media comment. In the UK the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer has issued interim guidelines in an attempt to rein in the growing number of such prosecutions.

Corporations as censors
Another disturbing part of this growing set of threats to our web freedom is the role played by corporations. Many web hosting companies and internet service providers state their support for fundamental rights, including free expression, while insisting that they also have to obey the laws of countries they are in. Google and Twitter have led the way in publishing transparency reports showing the number of takedown requests and user data information requests they have received from different governments.

But companies can become complicit in censorship if they take content down too readily in the face of public or government complaints — avoiding the risk of court cases or libel suits, playing safe. Companies such as Facebook or Twitter also set their own terms of service which define what is and is not acceptable usage and behaviour on their platforms. Perfectly normal perhaps — just like a club sets the rules of behaviour of its members.

But when the club, in the case of Facebook, is a billion strong, and its terms of service dictate what types of images and language are and are not acceptable, moreover dictating that anonymity is not allowed, then these are the sorts of constraints on free expression that are usually the preserve of governments to decide — governments that can be held accountable by their citizens (in democracies) and challenged by civil society, in the courts and through the ballot box.

The retention and commercial use of increasingly large amounts of individuals’ data from their internet activities has also sparked an extensive and vital debate about privacy. Privacy online is very often closely intertwined with free expression online: if someone is monitoring what you do or say or gathering it up and exploiting it commercially, that can be a major chill on free speech.

Whether and to what extent there should be a “right to be forgotten” is one part of this debate. Given the pervasive nature of the web, actually deleting individual data is becoming increasingly difficult. At the same time requests to delete individual data from news reports, for instance, is a sort of censorship of the historical record which would be highly undesirable.

Digital freedoms closing down

There are a wide and growing set of threats to our digital freedoms. But there are positive trends too. The rapid, intense and so far successful fight back against various forms of extensive imposition of copyright controls (ACTA, PIPA, SOPA and others) shows this is not a one-way street.

Even in regimes like Iran and China, many ordinary citizens have found ways to evade the censor, to widen their ability to communicate and access information. Governments can be challenged — at least in democracies — if they go down the route of mass surveillance or criminalisation of social media comment. Defending our digital freedom means becoming active, engaging with the arguments, making the case: bad decisions and laws can be stopped, limited or reversed. It is a national and an international debate — and the debate is now on.

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