The long decline of online freedom

According to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. What’s going on?

locked computer laptop
Credit: Santeri Viinamäki

The internet, for many of us who are fortunate enough to access it on a daily basis, has become an integral part of our lives. Virtually everything we do is tethered to this online platform, and it has transformed many aspects of our economic, social and cultural lives. But while we may take the ease with which we can access and use the internet for granted, a new report from Freedom House highlights the unsettling fact that billions of people around the globe are not so fortunate. 

“Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s annual study on internet freedom around the world, sheds light on the fact that in many parts of the world, access to the free and open internet is simply not a reality. While this is due to a number of factors, for many people government-mobilized access restrictions and shutdowns present a significant barrier to the tremendous benefits of the internet. 

The Internet Society is a proud sponsor of this year’s report. As an organization that supports the global development of an open internet free of undue regulation and censorship, it considers the findings of “Freedom on the Net” troubling. In particular, we believe the disruptions in internet access identified by Freedom House have harmful social, free speech, political and even economic consequences. 

Today, more than 3.4 billion people across the globe, roughly 46% of the world's population, have internet access, and its impact is borne out by statistics: Every single day, more than 200 billion emails are sent, 140,000 websites created and 500 million tweets posted. But behind each email, website and tweet are people. Fundamentally, the internet is the platform for creativity and innovation that has resulted in positive economic and social impact. So it will probably come as a surprise to many that, according to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. That’s worrisome and prompts the question, What’s going on? 

According to Freedom House, many countries are increasing service restrictions or shutdowns of their networks to block “a growing diversity of topics and online activities.” Of the 65 countries examined in the report, 24 impeded access to their citizens’ social media and communication tools. That’s a nearly 37% increase from 2015. 

And in addition to escalating censorship, the number of countries that have arrested citizens for engaging in online communication deemed menacing to state operations increased 50% since 2013. These “offenses” can be as simple as liking or linking to material, on Facebook or Twitter, that is considered controversial. It’s important to note that this kind of targeting isn’t aimed just at human rights activists; more and more average users find themselves in the cross hairs of government crackdowns on speech. 

This continued escalation of online restrictions is extremely unsettling. Indeed, the evolving practice by some governments of inducing all-out network shutdowns, often in the name of national security or public order, will have potentially irreversible and society-wide consequences.  

Freedom House’s latest report confirms that in 2015, governments in 15 countries temporarily shut down access to the entire internet or mobile phone networks. This includes shutting down the internet during “politically contentious” times to block citizens from disseminating information through social media. 

The economic implications of network shutdowns are equally destructive. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, network shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion U.S. annually. Key examples of countries that lost money include India ($968 million), Saudi Arabia ($465 million), Morocco ($320 million), Iraq ($209 million) and Brazil ($116 million). Additionally, separate analysis by Deloitte Consulting for the Global Network Initiative estimated shutdowns to cost $23.6 million for every 10 million citizens in highly connected countries and $6.6 million per every 10 million citizens in countries with lower access. 

The ramifications of these moves from a social and humanitarian perspective are equally alarming. This tactic eliminates one of the major components needed to get the next billion people connected: trust. The Internet Society believes trust plays a key role in whether those who don’t currently use the internet see its value and believe it can improve their lives. Without trust, the internet’s full potential simply cannot be realized and developed. 

Policymakers have a choice to make about which path to take in developing internet policies. One path leads to an open and trusted internet with all the social and economic benefits it brings. The other path leads to an increasingly closed off and fragmented network that fails to drive growth. One path to opportunity, the other to stagnation. 

This year’s, “Freedom on the Net” report underscores that, even in 2016, our global internet community still has a long way to go to ensure that billions of citizens have adequate and properly functioning access to this incredible platform. We hope this report will serve as a warning to policymakers and industry leaders. We must not take the promise of the internet for granted. The successes our world experiences each day from the internet — economic, social and political — depend on it. 

Sally Shipman Wentworth is vice president of Global Policy Development at the Internet Society.

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