Why countries should not restrict internet freedom

computer desk

In this day and age we have become accustomed to the fact that pretty much all the information and services we need are available at our fingertips. The internet permeates virtually all aspects of our lives. It has become an integral part in our education at schools and universities; in how we consume news, communicate, and voice our opinions; and it provides easy access to almost every kind of service imaginable, ranging from transportation to pet grooming to match-making for the lonely-at-heart.

However, the most recent Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House, a US-based democracy and human rights watchdog, paints a less rosy picture. According to Freedom House, out of the estimated 3.2 billion internet users, a staggering 60% live in countries where netizens have been arrested for voicing their opinion on political, social and religious issues. Social media and messaging apps are inaccessible for 38% of all internet users. And 33% of netizens live in countries where discussion of LGBTI issues is off limits under threat of punishment.

The sad reality is that two third of global users do not enjoy access to free internet, due to different forms of censorship. These vary from essentially keeping all internet users in an elaborate virtual and tightly controlled sandbox (like China does, or, taking it to the extreme, North Korea) to simply blocking webpages or online services the powers that be object to (e.g. Vietnam or Myanmar). Freedom House notes that globally internet censorship is on the rise. It seems that censoring countries have become trendsetters of sorts, with restrictions of the internet apparently becoming something to aspire to. This is wrong for various reasons.

From the outset, the internet has been a place that – at least in theory – allowed for diversity, covering topics ranging from social issues to political topics. However, the current global trend seems to go in the direction of restricting this diversity, with governments trying to take more control of what, for example, may discussed online, or which political views may be promoted by netizens. In many cases this has deprived citizens from using the internet as a tool to exercise their political rights (e.g. signing a petition) or made the discussion of certain societal issues off limits, thereby discriminating against select members of society. Content and websites dealing with LGBTI topics, for example, have been increasingly blocked or taken down on moral grounds in some Asian countries, making it harder to advocate for and discuss the issue in a rational and informed manner.

Restrictions such as these also hinder the ability of the internet to serve as an important tool to ensure good governance. Freedom House’s report found that in more than two-thirds of the countries it assessed, internet-based activism had led to some sort of concrete outcome such as the defeat of restrictive legislative proposals or the exposure of corruption through activists and journalists. But countries where digital activists find themselves at the receiving end of state censorship and online surveillance lack an important mechanism to ensure government accountability.

But the internet serves an even more fundamental role when it comes to education. Internet literacy is an indispensable skill in our day and age, and is the result of (and in turn contributes to) the education of any given country’s citizens. However, education systems can only make meaningful contributions to the internet literacy of the younger members of their populations if governments follow a non-protectionist approach to this subject matter. But online censorship of certain words and phrases as well as images has intensified on a global level. Not only has this made information on certain (educational) topics simply hard to access, it has also occasionally produced weird outcomes such as when in 2010 Canada’s oldest and most respected journal on Canadian history was forced to change its name. (Its former one, “The Beaver”, led to it being filtered in web searches and inboxes in schools and universities across the country.) Rather than viewing the young members of their societies as possible victims who need to be protected from certain parts of the internet, countries should take sensible measures to empower their youth in order for them to make sound judgments about their online activities – even at the peril that the occasional pupil might stumble upon a beaver of the salacious variety.

Another drawback of internet censorship countries should consider are business issues. Internet censorship has a negative impact on businesses on various levels. It leads to businesses facing restrictions of their potential customer base, especially if they operate internationally. (Facebook for example, is technically still unavailable to users in China and VPN services that offer a way to circumvent the blocking are increasingly being targeted themselves.) Additionally, companies operating in countries where the internet is restricted may be unable to themselves access the best websites of service providers and suppliers, making it harder to compete on an increasingly interconnected, global scale. This will do lasting damage to the economic future of these countries. 

Evidence suggests that restrictions of the internet and its users’ ability to fully take advantage of its potential are on the rise. Although in some cases certain restrictions are justifiable (for example through legitimate means to restrict the internet’s use in crimes) global trends show many governments covertly and overtly apply overly restrictive measures and regulations which violate basic rights such as the freedoms of opinion and expression, political participation, or do direct and indirect damage to education systems and the business sphere of their societies. Freedom House noted in its last report that internet freedom had declined for its sixth consecutive year. Let’s hope this trend can be reversed.