Internet freedoms coming under increasing attack
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 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.
Kirsty Hughes is chief executive officer of Index on Censorship and is moderating a workshop at the OSCE conference on internet security being hosted by the Government in Dublin