While the internet and social media facilitate democratic instant global discourse, they are also tools of control, says Kirsty Hughes
This article was originally published in the Irish Times, 19 June 2012
At first glance, it seems self-evident that the exponential increase in the way millions of us communicate through email, mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook or myriad other websites must have hugely extended our freedom of speech.
We can now comment, receive, share, send and publish information around the world to an extent unimaginable a few decades ago. The Arab Spring unfolded in part through the power of social media as protesters used Facebook, Twitter and mobiles to organise.
Much of our public debate is now concerned with whether children are safe in this digital world or how to deal with abusive “trolls” online rather than worries about constraints on our digital freedoms.
While few would be surprised that authoritarian countries like China or Iran monitor and censor information and criticism online at least as much as they ever did (and still do) offline, many are complacent about their internet rights in democracies such as Ireland or Britain. However, we are sanguine about our internet freedoms at our peril — they are already under increasing attack and constraint. If we are not to wake up one day and find that our internet is constrained and under surveillance — our freedom of speech and our privacy compromised — then we must actively defend those rights now.
One of the biggest threats to our digital freedom comes about because of the amount of easily collected information about what we do online, on our mobile phones and through Twitter and Facebook accounts. Controlling how, and how much, companies like Facebook and Google can gather and use information on their users is one challenge, but a much bigger one is stopping governments snooping on all our activities and contacts.
In a democracy, we probably accept that to tackle crime or terrorism, police may, within strict limits, sometimes have the right to monitor phone calls, track who is calling whom or even who is visiting someone’s house. However we don’t expect that to apply to the vast majority of citizens going about their daily business, nor do we expect phone companies to be told to track all of our calls.
The Chinese government demands that companies who provide internet services track and monitor all their users — a huge and chilling intrusion on free speech and privacy. Just last week, the British government published the Communications Data Bill, a “snoopers’ charter”, which will give police and other authorities unprecedented access to information on everyone’s emails, phone calls and internet usage.
If it becomes law, it will demand that internet service providers and mobile phone companies collect even more data than they do today for their own commercial purposes – and hand it over when asked. Imagine the outcry, in the days before the internet, if a record was taken of whomever you sent a letter to, whoever you called and whoever you met.
Another big threat to internet freedom comes through governments blocking access to sites or even to the web as a whole. At first glance this seems a problem in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. China has increasingly sophisticated technology to block access to sites and ensure that ordinary users do not come across web pages and debates on democracy or the Chinese government itself.
This March, Pakistan put out a multimillion-dollar tender for a national-level filtering and blocking system. Apart from the outcry this caused in Pakistan and beyond, it raises the question of who supplies and exports the technology. Corporations should not be complicit in human rights abuses but where are the controls on exports of this kind?
In Britain, there has been a lot of debate about child protection online. While few would deny that parents should pay careful attention to what their children access online, the Daily Mail has been demanding nationwide network filters be set by all internet service providers so that users would have to opt in to view legal adult content.
This would be censorship of legal material, yet who decides which sites are on a “blocked” list? Research on blocking and filters has shown they frequently catch sites that are not the intended target — “overblock” in the jargon. Getting unblocked once you are on a list is not easy, yet the British government is now consulting on child protection filters.
The internet has freed many of us to be our own publishers and commentators without needing to go through the gateway of a publishing company or the comment and letters pages of a newspaper. This has increased our ability to criticise politicians, powerful businesses and others. There is a strong backlash against this — governments and large businesses are active in monitoring comments they don’t like and demanding websites take offending words down, often trying to hold the website, not the author, responsible.
“Takedown” requests are increasing in many countries — Spain has seen a big rise, while India, the largest democracy, is proving a challenge for websites which face large numbers of takedown requests on religious and political grounds.
Many countries have “hate speech” laws and libel laws for offline publications and it may be straightforward to apply these laws equally to online publication — although the online world also makes it very easy to rapidly publish rebuttals. However the evidence suggests many takedown requests are not made because comment is illegal or libellous but simply because it is critical. Web hosts often go along with such requests, even without a court order, to be on the safe side and avoid any possible legal costs and actions.
We are starting to see the privatisation of censorship — private web companies deciding whether to take something down, not a judge or a court — and it is mostly invisible. Google publishes a “transparency report” of all the takedown requests it receives — but where are the British or Irish governments’ own transparency reports showing all the requests they make and on what grounds?
Surveillance, blocking and censorship across our digital world sounds like a nightmare in another country. It risks being the reality at home too, though, unless governments and businesses are challenged to respect and defend our fundamental human right to free expression online as much as off.