The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 states that, 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.

The online space has brought people from all walks of life together, making the earth a global village of sorts. But, with the prevailing rate of dwindling internet freedoms, this could be a thing of the past, flushing democracy down the drain in its wake.

Propaganda is spreading online like cancer and governments have abandoned all notion of privacy, with some countries going as far as adopting digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.

According to a report done by Freedom House, the internet has been used to disrupt democracies and destabilize dictatorships this year. With or without malign intent, the internet more so social media has pushed citizens into polarized echo chambers and pulled at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities.

In April 2018, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified in two congressional hearings about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation. The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes like it did in the Kenyan elections of 2017.

In another case of Asia, over the past 12 months in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, false rumours and hateful propaganda that was spread online drove violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Through content manipulation, such strife can be a breeding ground for the interests of antidemocratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states.

Throughout the year, authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model.

China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance.

Its companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to a variety of governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities. Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.

Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services. China, Russia, and other repressive states are also demanding that companies store their citizens’ data within their borders, where the information can be accessed by security agencies.

Democracies are famously slow at responding to crises—their systems of checks and balances, open deliberation, and public participation are not conducive to rapid decision-making. But this built-in caution has helped some semi-democratic countries fend off authoritarian-style internet controls over the past year. In May, Bloggers Association of Kenya together with interested parties such as Article 19, Law Society of Kenya and Kenya Union of Journalists challenged the constitutionality of criminal provisions against the spread of false news, winning a suspension of the rules pending a final court judgment.

Securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy. Technology should empower citizens to make their own social, economic, and political choices without coercion or hidden manipulation. When it comes to protecting data, users must be granted the power to ward off undue intrusions into their personal lives by both the government and corporations.

Global internet freedom can and should be the antidote to digital authoritarianism. The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.

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