Internet freedoms coming under increasing attack
OPINION: While the internet and social media facilitate democratic instant global discourse, they are also tools of control
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 a myriad of 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 like 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.