Life before the internet was nothing like today: the world was far less connected, a night in meant a trip to your local Blockbusters, and if you wanted to send a message to someone living on the other side of the planet, you had to write it down on a bit of paper and send it in the mail.
Years later, when dial-up modems and MSN messenger were a thing, the world became a lot more technological and people started to access information differently, using news sites rather than print media and audiobooks instead of libraries. The idea of cultivating a small corner of the internet to call your own also became fashionable, with social networking sites like MySpace and Bebo becoming popular.
Now we find ourselves here, living in a world of smartphones, social media, virtual assistants, and the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of our hands.
These changes have made the world almost unrecognisable to that of two decades ago and have given millions, if not billions of people a voice. But not everyone is happy about it. In fact, some have even started to resent the democratizing effects of the internet.
The number of internet users now stands at over 4 billion and fearing the worst, many of those in power have started to conspire against the public to constrain, block or monitor the internet in an attempt to preserve the power they once enjoyed. Even democratic governments have begun implementing new laws that restrict the internet, record your online communications and generally undermine your digital rights.
So what is digital freedom, and how is it under attack?
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Internet freedom covers a wide range of topics, including access to the internet, freedom of expression and internet censorship, but basically relates to the public’s ability to express themselves and share ideas online.
Countries like Saudi Arabia make this sort of thing very difficult, as every byte of online data passes through a controlled router monitored by the Saudi Arabian government, where anything that is posted on social or published online is scrutinised.
The government’s power to do this was enshrined in law in 2003, when legislation was passed that was originally intended to restrict criticism of the government in newspapers (the Law of Printing and Publication), but was later used to make things as benign as blogging about the government, or posting unfavourable comments to social media, punishable by five years’ imprisonment.
Similar forms of surveillance have been implemented in Ethiopia under the rubric of national security, where the government introduced new anti-terror legislation that meant they could monitor what citizens were posting online as well as punish them for writing anything that could be seen as critical of the ruling party. Two citizens, in fact, have already been convicted of so-called “speech” offences.
Another way that governments have curtailed digital freedoms is to actually block people from gaining access to the internet altogether. Mobile WiFi, for instance, is prohibited in Eritrea and means citizens are only able to access information using very slow, very unreliable dial-up modems. This has meant that the country suffers from one of the lowest access rates on record, with just 1% of the population online.
China and North Korea have taken a very different route to controlling the internet: censorship, with China using a huge digital barrier to restrict which websites can be viewed, and North Korea simply not allowing its citizens to access the global internet. Instead, providing a paltry 28 websites from inside the country.
Doing this has meant that these authoritarian governments are able to keep a tight grasp on what information people can access, and is tantamount to propaganda in some cases – a lot of the information available on North Korea’s very small collection of sites is mostly about Kim Jong-Un.
Closer to home are countries like the United Kingdom and the US, which have passed laws that allow them to see almost everything about your online activity, like which websites you visit and what you post on social media. These laws, like the UK’s Snooper’s Charter, are usually justified as an attempt to protect the country from criminal or terrorist activity. But as we’ve already seen, the same defence is used by other, less democratic states to achieve the same goals.
What can be done to fight back?
According to a new report published by the pro-democracy think tank Freedom House, digital freedom is on the decline for the eighth year running, which, to pessimists, may feel like the war has already been won. But there are things that you can do to fight back against the eroding of digital rights.
First, use your vote. By voting for parties or members of government who support a free internet, you can affect the way in which new laws and legislation impinge on internet freedom.
Secondly, you can start using digital tools that protect your data from prying eyes and circumvent oppressive firewalls. One such tool is a VPN, or virtual private network. These work by encrypting your data before it leaves your device so that those who wish to monitor your activity or steal your personal information can’t. Using servers in multiple countries, VPNs also allow users to look like they’re accessing the internet from a different location, which means you can keep your online activity private and access restricted content.