The Internet and Control — A Global Human Rights Issue
This essay was originally posted on the blog for Global Citizens United, what I hope to see become a global movement to create a new model that works for the planet and all who call it home.
The Internet is the foundation of 21st-century society. It connects billions of people around the world, enabling us to coordinate with one another globally.
From the global supply chain logistics that feed us, allowing instantaneous access to education, banking, news, and entertainment — the Internet is an inextricable part of modern life.
This reality has profound implications for how we organise our emerging global society.
The Internet has embedded itself so deeply into our lives that the freedom to access it is now a prerequisite for securing certain human rights and living a dignified life. The most notable of rights in this context is the Freedom of Expression (also referred to as freedom of speech, but freedom of expression also includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas).
Freedom of Expression
Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Freedom of expression is not only important on its own, but it is necessary if other rights are to be secured as well. The right to education (Article 26), the right to public assembly and association (Article 20), the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community (Article 27), and the right to freedom of thought (Article 18) are dependent upon the right of freedom of expression.
It’s a value of such importance that UNESCO describes it as the cornerstone of democracy.
Speech and Democracy
Democracy is a system of government where the political power and authority is distributed amongst the voting population. People cast their votes, ideally, in a way that they consider to best for society.
We make decisions based on the information that we are exposed to, whether consciously or otherwise. In order to decide on what one thinks is best for society, people first need to have access to information that accurately reflects what is going on within it.
So where do people get their information today?
The Internet — The Public Square
The Internet is the primary information source for the 21st-century citizen. Getting our news from newspapers and the TV isn’t enough — we know that in what’s being described as a post-truth world, sources of information that were once considered reliable now have the accuracy of their reports called into question regularly. The extent of bias and misinformation is leading citizens to take to the Internet to fact-check and patch together an idea of the world that, they hope, is a better representation of reality.
Some people share their snapshots of the world to the public squares of today: social media platforms.
It’s on these platforms — digital public squares — where the war of ideas is waged (the fact that these global public squares are run by private companies bound by national laws is a topic for another essay).
These platforms connect billions of people, regardless of nationality or geography, and allow us to engage in the chaotic exercise of collective sense-making, and more importantly, to take action.
This means internet access is now necessary for democracy.
And our ability to access this shared treasure is under threat. The infrastructure that enables us to access the Internet is not within our control. At any moment, our ability to access the Web and its contents can be taken away from us.
Internet Blackouts and Control — Internet Intermission
This year alone, internet access for citizens has been blocked by governments in Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, West Papua, and evidence of social media and news disruption has been found in Algeria, Egypt, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka.
Then there’s the Great Firewall of China: the most extensive form of government censorship in the world.
According to the Internet Trends 2019 report, 42% of internet users live in a country where their government has disconnected the Internet or mobile networks for political reasons. It also found that 47% of users have had their social media or messaging platforms blocked.
There are a variety of motives behind internet interruptions and censorship: stopping the organising of protests, silencing dissent, controlling the minds of their citizens — all things antithetical to the values of freedom and self-determination that many of those in the modern world believe in, and blood has been shed for.
Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, an NGO that tracks internet censorship globally, said that:
“We’ve seen that shutdowns are used to cover up incidents that are embarrassing. [They] are used to cover up violations of human rights, including alleged reports of killings.”
The disruption of internet access, social media, and messaging apps is not only a blatant infringement of human rights, but a threat to global stability.
By manipulating the information environments of people, governments can control what the world appears to be like to us. A decision could be come to democratically that is at complete odds with reality, and citizens would be none the wiser. The results of such manipulation could be catastrophic. For instance, governments with complete control over their citizens’ internet access could manufacture consent for wars and hide information critical for tackling global issues like climate change and biosphere collapse.
Thus, the problem of state-censorship and internet control is not only bound within the borders of a single country. The problem of internet access and censorship affects everyone in the world, regardless of where we live.
This is true not only with regards to global political stability, but more fundamentally, the rights of everyone around the world.
Freedom of expression is not solely focused on ensuring that individuals are free to express an opinion, it also includes preserving our ability to seek out and receive information and ideas.
By interfering with the ability of citizens’ to access the Internet, these governments are denying us our right to hear what these people have to say.
These interruptions are as much of an affront on our rights than the rights of their citizens.
In one of the widely celebrated defences of freedom of expression, On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
One reason for this is silencing just one person could mean denying an entire population the truth, truth whose impact could change the course of history for the better.
Global Internet Access
The importance of the Internet in global society today cannot be understated. It’s necessary for securing human rights, for our economies, and for us to peacefully live and thrive as 21st-century citizens. The ability to communicate truthful information is necessary for bringing order to our world and to ensure our collective flourishing within it.
However, our connection to it is far more tenuous than we might realise. All it may take is an alleged threat to ‘national security’ for our access to the Internet to be disrupted.
While there are companies like SpaceX , Amazon, and OneWeb working towards providing global internet infrastructure with satellites, they are companies with private interests that are shackled by the laws of the nation-states they reside in. It’s without a doubt a step in the right direction, but not enough.
The value of the Internet is too high to be left in the hands of the governments and companies. Something of such importance requires solutions of a different kind.
In the interests of human rights, truth, freedom, and progress, we need to create internet infrastructure in such a way that no country or company can interfere with our ability to access it.
The question of how this can be done is one that’s currently being explored. Developments in distributed ledger technologies like blockchain, as well as telecommunications technologies like mesh networks, show substantial promise in providing some answers, however, it’s still early days.
As tensions and political unrest around the world rise, so too does the importance of such a development.
The Internet is humanity digitised — the library of the world — and so much more. It’s now a birthright for all of those in this century. Let’s treat it as such.