Communication systems, information technologies, together with the internet play a fundamental role in fostering citizen participation and influencing the electoral and administrative decisions of government. In today’s globalized world, the internet is simultaneously a global broadcasting network, a tool for information distribution, and a mechanism for collaboration and interaction between people and their technological devices regardless of their geographic boundaries, time zones and other similar factors.
The emergence if the internet throughout the world gives opportunities to enhance the participation in democratic spaces. The internet has become a crucial medium through which people can express themselves and share ideas. It has become an increasingly important tool through which democracy and human rights activists mobilize and advocate for political, social, and economic reform.
However, the global sphere is currently facing a global human rights crisis with respect to the infringement of internet rights by repressive governments across the spectrum. Fearing the power of new technological output, authoritarian states have devised subtle and at times not so subtle ways to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet, and the freedom that the internet should facilitate with respects to challenging the issues of security, economy, political and social freedom that the media raises.
The negative trajectory in internet freedom is mirrored around the world – from the internet blackouts inflicted by Mulato Teshome’s regime in Ethiophia, to the employment of digital surveillance as part of the project to effect repressive dissent by Paul Biya’s regime in Cameroon. We cannot shy away from the fact that internet freedom across the globe is rapidly declining, with more governments targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting rapid dissemination of information, particularly antigovernment protests. Public social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but in a new trend, governments increasingly target messaging and voice communications apps such as Whatsapp. These are the very same services which are able to spread information and connect users quickly and securely, making it more difficult for authorities to control the information landscape or conduct surveillance.
The increased controls over the internet shows the importance of social media and online communication for advancing political freedom and social justice. It is no coincidence that the tools at the center of the current crackdown have been widely used to hold governments accountable and facilitate uncensored conversations.
We had the privilege and opportunity of speaking to Tom Wheeler, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, on 27 June, as part of our SAWIP session. Tom Wheeler was a strong advocate for the idea of net neutrality for. Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, and the internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate against certain types of traffic. In other words, net neutrality is significantly linked to the idea of open and accessible internet to users – the idea that internet service providers and repressive governments should be forbidden from blocking or throttling sites.
Digital Surveillance undermines the freedom of the internet. The internet gives human rights and political activists the opportunity to participate and organize online. It is another tool that can be effectively used for mobilization and demonstration. Internet users are subject to censorship in countries where criticism of governments, military, or the ruling family exists.
Access to the internet means that people are able to be more informed. We need to acknowledge that free access to the media plays an important role in supporting democracy. The Human Rights community and the rest of the international community needs to launch a successful and a consistent campaign against repressive governments that continue to restrict the internet. It needs to be ranked a priority. As long as the international community continues to remain silent, repressive governments will continue to spy on citizens, harass opponents, and deny people access to the internet and thus undermine democratic participation across all spectrums.
There needs be introduced and adopted a specific, internationally recognized right to the internet. As I mentioned above, the increased involvement of people in political debate is evident on an even greater scale on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The force that is dubbed the ‘internet’ allows for greater freedom of expression, facilitating citizen’s ability to challenge and criticize, which I consider a basic democratic right. There is a reason why repressive governments continue to block local internet, and that is because the digital age is empowering citizens across the globe to raise issues and challenge their regimes in virtual spaces.