Notwithstanding the freedom of expression being one of the fundamental rights in all democratic countries, this right is increasingly being restricted or denied under the pretext of national security, fighting terrorism, greater good of a country, etc, especially under rightist nationalist governments. The era of internet and digital revolution initially created a new tool for citizens to boost their democratic activities through dissemination of views and information. However, the trend shows that the internet has become less free across the globe and its impact on the functioning of democracies is discouraging.
Disinformation, propaganda and fake news disseminated online have vitiated society. Political developments last year established that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as well as to destabilise authoritarian regimes. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, involving social media giant Facebook, revealed that the data of up to 87 million users were used for political exploitation. Facebook-owned WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a California court on October 29 last year alleging that Israeli NSO Group, Pegasus, gained unauthorised access to its servers and communication service.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation requires data holders to obtain more meaningful consent, increase transparency about what data are collected and why, and provide a way for users to download, transfer or delete their information. Many countries have followed the EU in enacting data protection laws. However, in most of the countries, the regulation does not apply to matters of national security and defence, thus failing to curtail rampant data collection by governments. Any bona fide data protection system should give individuals the power to control their own personal information while also ensuring that the internet remains borderless.
The influence of the internet is used by some vested interests for dividing people on communal lines for electoral gain. The latest trend in India is to cut internet access entirely. There were six incidents of internet shutdown in 2014. The number of such shutdowns is continuously increasing with 14 in 2015, 31 in 2016, 79 in 2017, 134 in 2018 and 106 in 2019. The maximum number of shutdowns ordered has been during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act stir since November last year.
India has earned the dubious distinction of internet shutdown capital of the world. Apart from causing inconvenience, internet shutdowns cause major economic losses. Top10VPN, a publication focused on internet privacy, revealed on January 7 that in 2019, India lost over $1.3 billion (Rs 9,300 crore) as a result of major internet shutdowns in regions like Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Rajasthan, Tripura, and Uttar Pradesh. The loss is the third-highest among 21 countries where major internet shutdowns happened last year. The combined toll from all cyber blockades stood at $8.05 billion.
The Kashmir Valley has been under communication curbs for the last 160 days since the abrogation of Article 370. The right to access internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution, and total shutdowns are “drastic” measures that should be considered only when “absolutely necessary”, the Supreme Court said on January 10. Editor of ‘Kashmir Times’ Anuradha Bhasin, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad and Indian Journalists Union among others had filed petitions against the move of the Centre in the apex court.
Internet controls within China reached new extremes with the implementation of the sweeping Cybersecurity Law and upgrades to surveillance technology. The most alarming development in China is that the country has introduced Social Credit System, which rates citizens’ “trustworthiness” by combining data on their online and offline behaviour.
A study on internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe done annually by Freedom on the Net, covering 87% of the world’s internet users, expresses concern over China’s ambitious anti-freedom of speech and human right cyber policy. It says Beijing is cultivating media elites and government ministers around the world to create a network of countries that will follow its lead on internet policy. Freedom on the Net report also states that Chinese officials held trainings and seminars on new media and information management with representatives from 36 of the 65 countries covered in this survey.
It is, therefore, a herculean task to free internet and cyberspace from anti-democratic and authoritarian forces. However, collaboration among civil society groups, democratic governments and IT companies may show us a way for effective solutions to the problem. Italian lawmakers have partnered with journalists and technology firms to pilot a nationwide curriculum on spotting online manipulation. Several US states have passed or proposed laws to increase media literacy programmes in local schools.
It is encouraging that social media companies are also working with civil society groups to identify disinformation on their platforms. Fake accounts controlled by entities in Russia and Iran were discovered as a result of Facebook’s collaboration with The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) in the United States. Comprova, an initiative by the nonprofit First Draft and the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, brings together 24 Brazilian news outlets to identify and counter disinformation ahead of the country’s elections. The project marks the first time a journalists’ association has been granted access to WhatsApp’s business API (application programming interface), which will improve the group’s ability to reach audiences on the platform.
To fight digital abuse, civil societies should engage with private companies, human right organisations, freedom of speech groups and other stakeholders. Technological innovation to evade unethical intervention on civil rights, freedom of speech and right to privacy is an advanced tool for the users. For example, leading international companies could develop mobile-phone applications that enhance digital security, enable sharing of images in a way that evades AI-driven censorship and incorporate circumvention capabilities into apps focused on other services.
A rapid-response fund should be created to address internet shutdowns, blocking of independent news sites or the introduction of draconian censorship laws. Advocacy for imposition of sanctions such as freezing of assets of foreign tech companies involved in human rights abuses, adhering to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, ensuring that all internet-related laws and practices adhere to international human rights law and standards and strong data protection laws are among the few remedies for ensuring internet freedom.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)