Across the digital world, virtual walls are being built. Online freedom is becoming a rarity, access is endangered through internet shutdowns, and the cost of getting online is creating yet more barriers. However, important work is being done to rebuild an internet without borders, with groups making firm commitments to fight internet shutdowns and advance accessibility.
Building digital bridges
At digital rights event RightsCon 2017, a commitment to fight internet shutdowns was declared by 30 governments of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC). The coalition is striving to advance internet freedom worldwide.
In a joint statement, the FOC called on all governments to “end such violations of the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”
Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at digital rights organisation Access Now, hailed it an important step in preventing internet shutdowns from becoming the new normal.
He said: “We now have a group of countries who have drawn a firm line in the sand against this human rights violation, and they can hold other governments accountable by setting the right example.”
Global barriers to freedom
The digital realm is experiencing changes of Orwellian proportions, with US internet users facing the prospect of their data being sold to third parties, and the UK bringing the Investigatory Powers Act into force.
Alongside this, digital and real world freedoms are colliding. While extreme social media checks are planned for visitors to the US, President Trump’s travel ban is reinforcing geographical borders. Just as freedom of movement in the real world is limited, an internet without borders seems far from being a reality.
Digital rights group Internet Sans Frontières (literally, internet without borders), is working to eradicate the obstacles to online freedom, finding ways to safeguard a free, open, and accessible internet.
Julie Owono is the group’s executive director, and focuses on digital rights and developing the organisation globally. She said this work is now more important than ever, and reports a global low in terms of internet freedoms.
Their work spans across the globe. In Brazil, the group focuses heavily on working with young people: “They are the opinion-makers of tomorrow. If you teach them critical thinking now they will be better citizens.”
According to Freedom House, Brazil is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, and levels of censorship are high. Meídia NINJA is one group in the country working towards change. This decentralised network is publishing uncensored news through citizen journalism, using digital tools to raise awareness of issues that may not get air time through traditional channels.
Internet Sans Frontières is opposed to any form of censorship, be it internet shutdown, blogger arrest or content censorship. When the flow of information is interrupted, human rights are at risk.
According to Julie Owono, the greatest threat in the digital world is government ordered internet shutdowns: “If you don’t have internet, you don’t have human rights online. It’s even more of a threat, because not a lot of people, organisations, or institutions are aware of the importance.”
A longstanding internet shutdown is creating barriers for the people of Cameroon, and tech companies have even created what they’re terming as an ‘internet refugee camp,’ to offer access to those people who until now have had to make long journeys to the city to get online.
Internet shutdowns do not just impact on free speech and a free exchange of ideas, they cost the global economy $2.4 billion between 1st July 2015 and 30th June 2016. The emergency services can’t share vital information, family members can’t contact each other and journalists can’t access information.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has said that people should have the same rights online as they do offline, which includes giving people the right to freedom of expression. Executive director of digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group Jim Killock said: “In order to do that, the internet needs to be free and open, not controlled or restricted by corporations and governments.”
He said: “In countries like China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, censorship is used to restrict debate, suppress political dissent and impose a particular world view.”
Access Now documented 56 shutdowns in 2016. Governments have justified these shutdowns for a range of reasons. While Uganda blocked social media on a presidential election day to stop users “telling lies,” a number of nations have shut down the internet to prevent cheating during school exams. Other blackouts have gone unexplained