INTERNET FREEDOM: IS IT A MYTH OR REALITY?

BY – DIVYANSHU JOSHI

INTRODUCTION

Man is a social animal. This statement is true since time immemorial and is believed worldwide. In today’s, post-modernistic era, internet and social media are the most important aspects of an individual’s life. Internet, though a powerful tool for socio-political interactions, can many times be dangerous and used by the Government as a weapon against an individual or another Nation. On one hand, where every nation is trying to achieve the utopian characteristics of a welfare state, on the other hand, freedom of the individual is being compromised on every level. One such is Internet Freedom which includes digital rights, freedom of information, the right to access the internet, freedom from internet censorship, and net neutrality but the question is whether this is being followed in reality. The annual report titled ‘ Freedom of The Net ‘ published by Freedom House shows a decline in online liberties and global internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year. This makes us think whether ‘internet freedom is a myth or reality’.

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BACKGROUND

About the Organization

A U.S.-based and government-funded non-governmental organization (NGO), ‘Freedom House‘, which describes itself as a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world, conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. However, critics have stated that the organization is biased towards US interests. Freedom House was founded in October 1941.

Each year it publishes ‘ Freedom in the World‘ report, which assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties and is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, and policymakers. Other than this, it also publishes two of its signature annual reports titled ‘Freedom of the Press’ and ‘Freedom of the Net’ which monitor censorship, intimidation and violence against journalists, and public access to information.

About the Report

For the very first time, the organization published ‘Freedom on the Net’ report in 2009 and examined internet freedom in 15 countries. Since then it has produced nine editions. There was no report in 2010. The reports generally cover the period from June through May. In 2014, the report covered 65 nations and this year’s report includes 87% of the world internet users. The countries are selected to represent a diversity of regions and governments.

The ‘Freedom on the Net’ report comprises analytical reports and numerical ratings, referring to internet freedom in different nations. Countries represent varying levels of political and media freedom. The survey consists of a set of questions, particularly designed to measure each nation’s internet and digital media freedom. It also considers other aspects of freedom such as access and openness of other digital means of transmitting information that are mobiles and text messaging services.

The results usually reflect the following 3 areas:

Obstacles to Access: infrastructural and economic barriers to access; governmental efforts to block specific applications or technologies; legal and ownership control over internet and mobile phone access providers.

Limits on Content: filtering and blocking of websites; other forms of censorship and self-censorship; manipulation of content; the diversity of online news media; and usage of digital media for social and political activism.

Violations of User Rights: legal protections and restrictions on online activity; surveillance and limits on privacy; and repercussions for online activity, such as legal prosecution, imprisonment, physical attacks, or other forms of harassment.

The results from the three areas are combined into a total score for a country (from 0 for best to 100 for worst) and countries are rated as “Free” (0 to 30), “Partly Free” (31 to 60), or “Not Free” (61 to 100) based on the totals.

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CURRENT ISSUE

The current issue is that’ Freedom of the Net’ report, 2019 edition, which was prepared by 70 analysts based on 21-question research methodology and takes into consideration: freedom of expression, privacy issues and internet access, has again exhibited a decline for consecutively 9th year. This year’s report covered 65 countries, which in turn covers 87% of the total internet users. Out of these 65 countries, only 16 have registered an improved score while 33 countries have been on an overall decline since June 2018.

 Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Armenia and Italy ranked as the best countries for internet freedom while China, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan are perceived as the worst.

India was given an overall score of 55 in the Freedom on the Net 2019 report and was declared ‘partly free’ in its internet freedom status.

QUESTION OF LAW

Now there stands a question that what are the factors behind such decline. On one hand, where all the nations are trying to portray on a global level, that they provide maximum liberty to their citizens, on the other hand, the report shows a decline in internet freedom, across the globe, for 9th consecutive time.

Some of the main trends behind such decline are as follows:

Internet Freedom in Reality increasingly being broken down to create a world of digital authoritarianism, which have spread rapidly around the globe.

Over-ambitious & repressive regimes, elected authoritarian incumbents and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control.

Social media which has always served as a platform for civic discussions has now tilted towards illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms.

Variety of governments are deploying advanced tools to identify and monitor users on an immense scale.

Authorities have made efforts to manipulate the internet environment thus bringing change in the political results of other nations. This trend first drew widespread attention as a result of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest, and this is also an increasingly common problem.

CONCLUSION

There is no more time to waste. The future Reality of Internet Freedom highly depends on the social media platforms where individuals can freely express themselves without any kind of influence or censorship. Upcoming technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, fifth-generation mobile networks etc. will create opportunities for human development but on the contrary, they will also provide as a tool for human exploitation by those in authoritative positions. These technological developments will also pose a new set of challenges for human rights across the globe. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rest on the decisions we make today.

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