Internet Freedom: Human Rights in the 21st Century

When the recently formed United Nations adopted a declaration of universal rights in 1948, it included the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”  This declaration predated the creation of the Internet by several decades.  The speed by which information and ideas travel, as well as the types of information being disseminated, have been transformed by the creation and expansion of the internet.  According to a June 2011 article from the United Nations website, the UN believes that in the 21st century this definition of freedom of ideas must expand to include freedom on the Internet — a freedom it says many countries are increasingly failing to honor.  The author of the report on Internet freedom, Frank La Rue, argues that the Internet has become “one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.”

The Internet was created largely independent of governments, without the notion of governmental control in mind.  It is a tool of the people with the power to unify nations with instant access to communication and endless information.  In recent years, many governments have taken steps to reduce the freedom that the Internet grants its users.  As La Rue writes, “many governments are setting up increasingly strenuous efforts to block Internet content, track its users and punish them for what they say.” He further states that “governments go far beyond the internationally accepted standards for restricting Internet freedom — such as to protect national security from imminent threats and to protect individuals, as in child pornography — and they impose restrictions without following the rule of law.” (“U.N. Expert Calls Internet Freedom Fundamental but Often Violated”)

Many governments choose to impose these restrictions as a form of protection.  They fear the freedom that the Internet grants its users to disseminate information, especially at pivotal national moments, such as anniversaries of historically significant events and times of social or political unrest.  A government fearing that the Internet will be used as a tool to stoke unrest will likely preempt these attempts by limiting Internet access.  The United Nations is calling for governments to provide “full details regarding the necessity and justification for blocking each individual website,” in order to limit unlawful censorship of the Internet. (“U.N. Expert Calls Internet Freedom Fundamental but Often Violated”)  According to the 17th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is a government’s responsibility to provide Internet access to its citizens as a key tool for enabling their human rights.

With Internet freedom still such a relatively new concept, the definition of “unlawful censorship” is currently ambiguous.  In recent years there has been a rise in use of the Internet as a political tool for change.  Open and anonymous online discourse was essential in the aftermath of Iran’s election protests, the WikiLeaks scandals, and the Egyptian revolutions, where blogs and tweets were utilized as tools for social justice.

Freedomhouse.org classifies three topical categories for Internet freedom: Obstacles to Access, Limitations on Content, and Violations of User Rights.  Somewhat surprisingly, one country that shows high levels of freedom in all three areas, is Estonia, a nation in which the government uses the internet to encourage its citizens participation in the political process.  Countries that scored very poorly include Iran, China, and Tunisia, which reflects their governments’ multilayered and comprehensive approach to controlling Internet and mobile phone usage.

Countries with poor access to Internet, not surprisingly included developing countries and those with low levels of per capita GDP such as India, Kenya, Cuba and South Africa.   Countries with the highest degree of violations of user rights, as of this 2008 study, included Russia, Egypt, and Malaysia, where “government-encouraged improvements in access to ICTs and relatively little censorship are offset by harsh legal environments, state monitoring, and a rise in criminal prosecutions.” (“A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media”) Other countries that fit this description included such democratic states as the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Turkey, all of which have high threat of prosecution or restrictions associated with civil lawsuits for libel and defamation.

With regards to specific forms of censorship, the Freedomhouse study found that seven countries had blocked so-called Web 2.0 applications—“advanced services such as the social-networking site Facebook, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the blog-hosting site Blogspot—either temporarily or permanently during the 2007–08 coverage period.” (“A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media”)  Another significant means of restricting Internet freedom is preventing users from accessing content that is deemed undesirable by the government.  Technical filtering of specific content or broad swaths of information at the ISP level, targeting keywords, entire domain names, or particular web addresses are all used in this type of censorship. Of the 15 countries in the study, only three—China, Iran, and Tunisia—filtered political content using technical means.

The United Nations has not merely declared Internet Freedom to be a human right, but it has also pledged to take steps to ensure that this right is protected.  Whether or not it has any hopes of enacting real change, the UN’s report calls states to promote online freedoms in five key ways:

–       “Protect citizen’s rights to speak anonymously on the Internet.

–       Refrain from building, using, or enforcing real-name databases that link online activity to user identity (even those used by popular companies like Facebook).

–       Acknowledge that national security and anti-terrorism concerns can’t be used to restrict freedom of expression except in the direst circumstances where there is an imminent and legitimate threat.

–       Take meaningful steps to ensure the privacy of personal data.

–       Decriminalize defamation.” (“A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media”)

Global Internet usage is expected to quadruple in the next four years.  Given this forecast, the notion of Internet Freedom and access as a human right will only become more prevalent.  Given the advent of Internet use globally, it is important to continue to question its role as a basic right. If we don’t provide affordable Internet access to everyone, are we blocking democracy and political power? Should Internet access be subsidized? How should the global community respond to nations who limit Internet freedom? Online speech is one of the defining elements of enfranchisement in the 21st century, and like freedom of the press in the 20th century, maintaining freedom of the Internet will be integral to preventing states from oppressing their citizens in the current day.

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