Digital connectivity is the most powerful driver of social and economic change the world has seen. And, free flow of Information is a core element of the Internet that has underpinned this growth in connectivity, innovation and productivity. Entrepreneurs in developing countries benefit from free flow as they sell their products globally over the Internet, using international financial data transfers to process transactions. It has also been a critical factor in the explosive growth of access to information and human opportunity.
But, Internet tools are vulnerable to exploitation by governments aiming to crush dissent and deny human rights. All governments struggle to balance a need to deal with serious issues such as security, hate speech, and child safety for their citizens but in repressive societies, these concerns often serve as convenient pretext to engage in censorship or surveillance of the Internet that violates the rights and privacy of users and threatens the free flow of information.
In an order dated 13 June 2013, In India, the Department of Telecom (DoT) directed Indian Internet service providers (ISPs) to block 39 websites. The order didn’t specify a reason or law under which the websites were blocked. Most are web forums, where internet users share images and URLs to pornographic files. However, some of the websites are also image and file hosts, mostly used to store and share files that are not pornographic. While watching or distributing child pornography is illegal in India, watching adult pornography is not. The blocked websites are hosted outside India and claim to operate under the U.S. rule that requires performers to be over 18 years of age.
Public morality is one of the things which is very vague and is very unclear. For example, on women’s bodies, Google ads don’t allow for advertisements on abortion, whether or not it is legal in the country. In Malaysia, abortion is not illegal, but advertisements on abortion are not allowed on Google ads. In Indonesia itself, LGBT sites are being blocked under the anti-pornography act. So one of the sites that has recently been blocked is the site called our voice, which is a site for LGBT communities to exercise their voice to participate in public associations and assemblies.
In June 2000, the Indian Parliament created the Information Technology (IT) Act to provide a legal framework to regulate Internet use and commerce, including digital signatures, security, and hacking. The act criminalises the publishing of obscene information electronically and grants police powers to search any premises without a warrant and arrest individuals in violation of the act.
Internet filtering can also be mandated through licensing requirements. For example, ISPs seeking licenses to provide Internet services with the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) “shall block Internet sites and/or individual subscribers, as identified and directed by the Telecom Authority from time to time” in the interests of “national security”. License agreements also require ISPs to prevent the transmission of obscene or otherwise objectionable material.
Recently in Sudan four telecom companies shut down the Internet during a series of protests in Khartoum, and there was never a justification for an Internet shutdown in that country, including from the industry dialogue, civil society, and government.
In Argentina, just three months ago, there has been a threat of a civil suit of libel suit against a person who expressed himself on Twitter. It is a problem, obviously, because to a journalist a threat of criminal libel or even civil libel might not be as bad or could not have such a chilling effect. But in the case of people who express themselves on Twitter, that chilling effect might be much, much worse.
Another issue is that there is presently a huge imbalance in the investments in innovation and surveillance, technologies in innovations and big data. We need to invest in privacy and safeguarding. This means a new way of addressing privacy as an area worth investing in. And this weight balance actually needs to be tipped on all accounts because presently, as it looks, the control that users are asking.