Where is thy freedom on the internet?
Since the Indian Parliament approved the Citizenship Amendment Bill on December 11, hundreds of thousands of Indians are protesting against the controversial amendment, which critics claim marginalises Muslim minorities of the country. In the wake of these protests, New Delhi's police department ordered the country's largest telecom carriers to stop voice, text, and internet services on December 18. Similarly, following revoking of the special status of the Indian administrated Kashmir, internet access has been blocked in the region for over 135 days. The consecutive internet shutdown in Kashmir is now being called the longest ever internet shut down in a democracy. Internet shutdown by states, especially during protests, is not unique to India. In Bangladesh, the government has sometimes blocked independent news websites and arrested ordinary citizens for social media contents deemed critical of the government. During the 2018 road-safety protest, there were allegations of slowing down mobile networks to limit internet usages and there had been cases of arrest of social media users for "spreading fake news."
Internet and social media platforms in their early days emerged as a beacon of light so much so that prominent political scientists Larry Diamond hailed them as "liberating technologies." Diamond argued that these technologies "can expand political, social, and economic freedom" and can even be used for "mobilising against authoritarian rule." Of course, one could claim that the Arab Spring in 2011 provided empirical evidence in support of Diamond's argument. The Arab Spring protesters across North Africa and the Middle East used the internet, mobile phones, and various social media platforms to mobilise and overthrow four dictators—Zineel Abadine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
In Bangladesh, the Shahbag movement in 2013 used platforms provided by the internet to organise and spread its messages. Most recently, the road-safety movement has relied heavily on social media to mobilise and disseminate information not only because of the conveniences of quick information spreading but also due to a lack of trust in the traditional news sources. Yet, the increased usages of digital technologies by state apparatus to control cyberspace has not gone unnoticed. Following the lead of China over the last ten years, numerous countries around the world including Bangladesh have used tactics of internet surveillance, particularly in attempts to curb anti-government protests, and imposed legal restrictions to control cyberspace.
This rise in attempts to control the cyberspace and restrict freedom of expression online has been called digital authoritarianism. Digital authoritarianism refers to the means through which authoritarian and repressive governments surveil and repress dissent on the internet. These are done by creating laws, policies, and regulations such as the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh. Governments are also adopting more covert policies to delegitimise criticism, for example, by claiming such opposing opinions as fake-news.
To that extent, Freedom House estimates that the level of internet freedom globally has declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019. A few important takeaways from the Washington D.C based think tank's Freedom on the Internet 2019 report, which described the level of internet freedom for the year 2018, are that, first of all, governments are not only limiting freedom of expression online but also taking active legal steps against citizens. Of the 65 countries assessed for the Freedom House report in 2019, that law enforcement agencies in 47 countries arrested people for posting political, social, or religious content online. Secondly, an increased number of countries, 40 of the 65 countries in 2018, are adapting to the new culture of digital authoritarianism by instituting advanced social media surveillance programmes. 15 of 40 countries that are using advance social media surveillance, it was only in the past year that such programmes were either expanded or newly established. As a result, 89 percent of internet users, close to three billion people, are being monitored on social media. Finally, since 2018, overall internet freedom, measured by a country's obstacles to internet access, content limits, and user rights violations, declined in 33 countries. This indicates, as noted earlier, the rise of digital authoritarianism around the world. The report also revealed that Bangladesh, along with Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, witnessed the biggest decline in internet freedom in 2018.
What does such a continuous decline in internet freedom in Bangladesh and around the world tell us? The diminishing freedom on the internet is indicative of the ongoing democratic backsliding and shirking of freedom of expression around the world. The democratic backsliding has been marked by a global shift towards authoritarianism, diminishing press freedom, limits on freedom of expression, and the rise of right-wing populist ideologies in all corners of the world. Over the past 13 years, democratic norms and values have sharply declined in both long-standing democracies such as the United States and the UK and other regimes such as in Turkey, India, and Bangladesh. All in all, democracy, along with citizen's freedom online and rights to freedom of expression, is in danger.
Furthermore, efforts to control the internet and social media are responsive to concerns over the government's ability to maintain domestic political control. Governments that perceive their power or legitimacy to be threatened by a mass display of dissatisfaction online or through protests are more likely to enhance restrictive measures online. Such restrictive measures online are aimed to limit the role of the internet and social media in spreading critical discourse or mobilising protests. For example, India has been regularly shutting down the internet. In fact, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre, various levels of authorities in India have shut down the internet 376 times since 2012 including 134 in 2018 and 104 times in 2019.
Deteriorating internet freedom is followed by suppression or co-option of traditional news sources. Populist leaders, for example, in India favoured media outlets that are flattering to the governments while isolating, harassing, or even denying licenses to critical news outlets. In other countries, harassments and killings of journalists have become more common. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critique of the Saudi government, was the most infamous recent case, but it was hardly unique. Given the shirking press freedom, it is not surprising that repressive governments would like to curb the scope of information dissemination through the internet and social media, particularly when these platforms become an alternative source of information due to the lack of legitimacy of traditional news sources among citizens.
Internet, and social media platforms, and the cyberspace in general, have become the new battleground for democratic norms and values. In 2019, Larry Diamond described social media as a "major threat to democratic stability and human freedom" acknowledging the dismal shift in social media's role in promoting democracy and freedom. Authoritarian and repressive governments are employing tactics and tools of digital authoritarianism to constantly monitor citizens' activities and eliminate any perceived dissents on the internet. Preserving internet freedom, however, cannot be separated from preserving freedom of press and freedom of expression offline as these are intrinsically connected and major components of democracy.
Fahmida Zaman is a PhD student in Political Science in the United States.