3 Downfalls of Internet Censorship

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The latest global statistics on internet censorship are not very promising. Around 67% of all internet users live in countries where some form of internet censorship exists. With the proliferation of social media platforms and rapid growth in the number of social media users in developing countries, it was also revealed that around 27% of all internet users live in countries where arrests have been made for content posted on major social media platforms like Facebook. Beyond social media apps, an increased amount of monitoring and censorship is growing amongst communications apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, platforms where information can be shared rapidly amongst groups and individuals. It is therefore no surprise that internet freedom has been on the decline for the past 6 years and future trends don’t look very promising. With encrypted communications apps being more closely monitored, some governments have made a move to restrict some voice and video calling applications in a bid to protect national telecommunications companies. With this decline, it is worth noting some of the negative impacts these have on the economy:

Slow growth in the digital economy

For digital economies to grow, pro-growth policies and regulations need to be in place to enable the participation in the digital economy without fear of backlashes and consequences to the business community. In different parts of the world, it was observed that some governments moved towards restricting internet-based messaging and calling platforms out of fear that their local telecommunications industries would be negatively impacted. This fear is born from the notion that the existence of internet-enabled mobile devices and smartphones has meant that access to more affordable and in some instances much cheaper means of communicating and sharing information is more readily available. It is feared that this is a market situation local telecommunications industries cannot compete with using the same traditional business models. However, it is important to note that the introduction of such innovative technological and telecommunications apps can actually help citizens and smaller businesses utilize the Internet and digital spaces to conduct their businesses and would encourage local telecommunications industry to support the growth of the digital economy through newer business models. After all, having lower communication costs for all is enriching everybody except old telecom companies, and they have no moral claim on people’s ressources.

Slow technological and business innovation

With restrictions to protect local market interests, this could also lead to slower technological and business innovation. First, with restricted access to newer technology and digital innovation, local economies would fall behind in learning from blueprints that already exist and that can be replicated to benefit small and medium enterprises. Second, with the slow or restricted introduction of newer technological innovations and free access to the Internet, local industries would not have the incentive to innovate and invest in research and development at a pace that matches that of those economies that are way ahead in their digital economy and technological progress. Finally, big businesses would be more weary of making sizable investments in environments where technological restrictions are more prominent and that would have an impact on their daily operations and long-term growth in the local economy. 

Restricted access to information

At the individual level, Internet restrictions can often result in citizens not having access to information that can help in the development of their knowledge and skills whether to help build their careers, pursue their business ambitions, or educate themselves on global issues. With the existence of circumventing tools that allow unrestricted access to information, this has meant that only those who can afford to access such tools would benefit from the global digital space. However, the existence of these circumventing tools which essentially promote the “illegal” usage of the Internet should be an indicator that fewer restrictions could lead to a reduction in access to information via illegal means. Moreover, in the event of fears around, for example, fake news being spread rapidly, working directly with tech and telecommunications companies would be a more proactive approach. This would enable governments to identify and flag fake news rather than putting restrictions when other means still exist to access this information.

Internet freedom therefore still has quite a way to go globally. We are at a crucial point in technological innovation and development. The proliferation of tech startups and companies means that their success is in some way dependent on having that open market environment for them to grow their businesses in. It would therefore be more useful for governments to focus on working with different key stakeholders in dealing with various market and political concerns, rather than rely solely on restrictive laws and policies that at the end of the day do not benefit their citizens and economies.