Is internet freedom a tool for democracy or authoritarianism?

//How can the internet act as a tool that promotes both democracy and authoritarianism? Elizabeth Stoycheff and Erik C. Nisbet explore this topic in their latest piece from The Conversation.

The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.

In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realize television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.

This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.

Not so fast.

In recent years, President Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. President Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.

This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.

The U.S. has made increasing internet access around the world a foreign policy priority. This policy was supported by both Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.

On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.

However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.

And some do.

But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an…

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“THE ISSUE OF INTERNET FREEDOM AND NATIONAL SECURITY IS NOT ONLY AN ETHIOPIAN PROBLEM”

//In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha, deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) Ethiopia, discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

Ethiopia has the second largest population of all African countries, yet its internet penetration rate is only 12 percent. Still, the country has arguably one of the most sophisticated internet regulatory regimes in the region. 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha is a cyber law and policy researcher, and deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia. In an interview with fellow participant and 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, Halefom discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

 

With over 80 ethnic groups and more than 90 languages Ethiopia is the most diversified country on the African continent. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to internet content regulation in your country?

The internet is the greatest tool for advancing causes of democracy and civil liberties. However, it is not without challenges and problems. When it comes to content, the internet provides unlimited access to useful resources, while at the same time, it also serves as a platform for harmful or illegal content such as hate speech, sexually explicit content especially child pornography, defamatory statements, terrorist propaganda, extremist, radicalizing, and racist materials. While recognizing that the benefits of the internet far outweigh its negative…

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Shots in the dark: An analysis of Internet Governance in Pakistan

//Jahanzaib Haque, current Chief Digital Strategist for the Dawn Media Group, comments on Internet governance in Pakistan including the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill.

Pakistan is among the five least connected countries in the world, according to a 2016 World Bank development report titled ‘Digital Dividends.’[1] Eighty-three per cent of the population of 200 million was found to be offline. The Freedom of the Net report released annually by Freedom House found a host of factors holding Pakistan back.[2] The report stated that, “Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have limited the proliferation of ICTs in Pakistan…most remote areas lack broadband, and a large number of users depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology.”

While internet penetration is low, the introduction of 3G/4G mobile networks in 2014[3] has greatly impacted accessibility and speed of adoption. With 3G/4G subscribers climbing to 26.1 million as of February 2016, and total teledensity at 68.54% in the country, the internet is accessible to citizens far beyond the urban areas where it was confined up to 2014.[4] The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) report showed that mobile phone ownership stood at 94.7% in urban areas and 83% in rural areas, promising far greater opportunities for online access.[5] Growth in internet use is likely to be very rapid over the next few years, closing the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots that…

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The Global Struggle against Free Basics

//CGCS Visiting Scholar Till Waescher explains that India’s recent ban on Facebook’s zero-rating initiative is a huge victory for both domestic and transnational privacy advocates

While many have voiced concerns surrounding Facebook’s Free Basics service’s violation of net neutrality principles, digital rights activists across the world also oppose the service due to privacy concerns. These activists highlight that for impoverished citizens of the ‘Global South’ the data plan is not actually ‘free’ as they pay with their personal data. Although Facebook has pledged to store the data for only 90 days, advocates worry that the company may permanently monitor the Free Basics traffic. A brief look at the debate in India also reveals that the fear of online surveillance was central in the anti-Free Basics movement. For example, Anupam Saraph, a Professor of Systems, Governance and Decision Sciences at the University of Groningen, and an advisor to the World Economic Forum, has called Facebook’s service “more dangerous than the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism Project,” essentially threatening Svarajya, India’s founding narrative of self-rule developed by Gandhi during the struggle for independence.

Critiques of Free Basics being a masked form of ‘digital colonialism’ have accompanied the project from the start—even a major, largely friendly profile in TIME magazine called aspects of Free Basics “distasteful”. (An unfortunate, quickly deleted tweet by board member Marc Andreessen seemed to confirm critics who accused Facebook of having a colonial mentality.) Activists around the world have noted that Free Basics effectively resembles the British Empire and brings in algorithms from the ‘North’ to data-mine the ‘South.’  While the Indian government’s eventual decision to not greenlight Facebook’s initiative was mainly the result of national discourse and activism within India, the international attention the issue received certainly helped. One of the core mechanisms of any form of transnational contention – lifting local or national concerns to the international level[1] – is applied in this case as well. Through globally coordinated efforts, activists and advocates within and outside of India managed to put the Free Basic controversy on the international news agenda.

 

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