Internet Freedom Policies Outpaced by Technology and Repression

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Photo Credit | Al Jazeera English

By Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President

Freedom House’s recently released Freedom on the Net report found that more countries have suffered declines in internet freedom than improvements since the last edition, providing a powerful reminder of the challenges for international policies to promote freedom online. These policies are struggling to keep up with rapid changes in information and communication technologies, and with the increasingly sophisticated restrictions on internet freedom around the world.

Significant policy initiatives to advance online freedom are under way. These include $100 million in U.S. support for internet freedom programs since 2008; the Digital Defenders Partnership, backed by several democratic governments to assist digital activists who come under threat; a wide-ranging digital freedom strategy for European Union foreign policy, currently under consideration in the European Parliament; and a “no disconnect” strategy being developed by the European Commission. These initiatives will have to move more quickly toward implementation if they are to stem the growing controls over the internet, and additional measures are needed as well.

Authoritarian regimes use a variety of methods, some blunt, others subtle, to restrict online freedom. The response to these restrictions must therefore be multifaceted and sophisticated. It also needs to adapt to the evolving tactics of online repression.

Two significant trends identified in this year’s Freedom on the Net report merit stronger responses. First, governments are increasingly resorting to violence to punish online critics. Physical assaults on bloggers and cyber activists tend to receive less attention than arrests and imprisonments, but they cause as much harm and send an equally chilling message to other internet users in the country who criticize the government. These attacks should be condemned in equally vocal terms. Foreign ministers and members of parliament should highlight cases of physical violence against cyber activists, press the governments in question to find and prosecute the perpetrators, and raise these cases time and again until the culprits are brought to justice.

Second, governments around the world are introducing new laws and directives to restrict freedom of expression online. In the year and a half covered by the latest Freedom on the Net report, 19 of the 47 countries studied passed such laws or directives. These restrictions, such as Malaysia’s legislation to hold blog and online forum hosts liable for seditious content posted by users on their sites, clearly violate recognized international norms of free expression. U.S. and European leaders should jointly challenge restrictive laws that are on the books or under consideration.

International criticism of restrictive laws would dovetail with the increasing citizen activism on internet freedom seen in a range of countries. In Turkey and Pakistan, for example, public pressure persuaded the government to back down from plans to introduce systems to filter internet content. International support for citizen activism could enhance local efforts to press for greater online freedom.

While citizen activism is growing, and U.S. and European policy initiatives are making progress, they still are falling behind the increasing controls imposed on the internet by authoritarian governments. U.S. and European officials need to bolster and adapt their policies to promote internet freedom if they are to catch up with the technologies and methods of online repression.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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