Why Digital Security Matters: Global Trends and the Decline of Net Freedoms
The shadow of Edward Snowden’s revelations
It’s not a contested matter any more. Today we are living through the lowest point of optimism when it comes to the transformative power of the internet since it was first created, a little over quarter of a century ago. Perhaps nothing got us closer to this sentiment than Edward Snowden’s revelations of June 2013 exposing the massive scale of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) digital surveillance and monitoring activities that targeted regular citizens, and extended beyond the US to friendly European countries.
This historic leak prompted a worldwide concern and debate about the right to digital privacy when using information communication technologies (ICTs), including the internet. As well as a debate about data localization since the NSA leaks led some countries, like Russia, Vietnam, Germany, India and others, to attempt to regulate the flow of data within their borders by requesting that international internet and technology companies store communication data pertaining to their citizens in servers inside their countries. Internet freedom advocates have expressed concern that data localization is detrimental to a free and open internet as it will make it easier for countries to spy on their citizens; may slow technological innovation; and fragment the internet by limiting global communications and e-commerce.
If any good has come from Snowden’s leaks so far, it is perhaps the global pushback by civil society and some nation states and a wider recognition that the right to privacy online is a human right. In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution “the right to privacy in the digital age”, which urges members states to review and reverse any policies that violate the right to digital privacy. The resolution stresses that rights offline must be protected online and reminds member states that the right to privacy is included under existing international human rights law, specifically in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by 167 countries so far. In March 2015 the UN Human Rights Council appointed its first ever Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, whose mandate is to analyze and monitor the right to digital privacy globally; give guidance to governments and companies; and receive input from all relevant stakeholders, including civil society .
Expansive scope of internet freedom violations
Before Snowden’s NSA leaks, it was usually non-democratic states that came under the spotlight for violating internet freedoms, including big violators of internet freedoms such as Cuba, Iran and China. All three countries are notorious for controlling free access to and freedom of expression on the internet through a variety of tactics that are also used by many other nations and that include but are not limited to:
1. blocking and filtering online content; 2. cyber attacks: the most aggressive being Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS); 3. blanket blocking of opposition websites, including social media; 4. shutting down the internet at times of political unrest such as protests or elections; 5. take-down requests, where bloggers are intimidated into taking down content; 6. physical attacks, including the murder of online journalists, citizen journalists and digital activists with Syria being the most deadly country for digital activists and online journalists in 2013; 7. paying commentators to manipulate discussions online; 8. introducing new laws that limit internet freedoms; and 9. monitoring and surveillance that prompts users in less democratic countries to exercise self-censorship.
Increase in restrictive laws and harsh penalties
According to Freedom House’s annual global survey Freedom on the Net 2014, there was a global decline in internet freedoms for the fourth year in a row in the period between May 2013 and May 2014 (the report has been published annually since 2009). “Out of 65 countries assessed, 36 have experienced a negative trajectory”, with more people being detained and persecuted for their digital activities in the last year alone than in any other year.
“A notable trend prevalent in both democratic and non-democratic countries, surveyed by the Freedom on the Net report, was the increase in new laws that limit internet freedoms, where 19 countries surveyed passed new laws “that increased surveillance or restricted user anonymity”.”
A notable trend prevalent in both democratic and non-democratic countries, surveyed by the Freedom on the Net report, was the increase in new laws that limit internet freedoms, where 19 countries surveyed passed new laws “that increased surveillance or restricted user anonymity”. In democratic countries these laws are often linked to national security concerns. This is specifically the case in France where, in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack of January 2015, the French National Assembly approved a law in May 2015 that would allow the country’s intelligence services to monitor citizen communications without judicial oversight. French civil society has launched a campaign to raise awareness and urge citizen action against the bill.
Freedom House also notes that the penalties for online expression are often much harsher than for similar offline penalties. For example, in Ethiopia six bloggers belonging to a collective of bloggers known as the Zone 9 Bloggers have been imprisoned since April 2014, under terrorism charges, for blogging about human rights and social justice issues. Their name reflects the name of a prison in Addis Ababa that has 8 zones. Expressing the sentiment that the whole country is becoming a prison, they called themselves zone9ers, and blogged under the motto: “We Blog Because We Care”, to increase the visibility of political prisoners, human rights abuses by the state and social and cultural issues.
The Middle East and North Africa saw the highest number of arrests of social media users and bloggers in recent times. Especially repressive were the countries of the Persian Gulf. Perhaps one of the most visible online and offline campaigns for an imprisoned blogger in the last year was that of the Saudi Blogger, Raif Badawi, who on May 2014 was sentenced by a criminal court in Jeddah to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of more than $200,000. According to the court, Badawi had “insulted Islam” by setting up a liberal online platform that discussed religion and politics.