A new Declaration for the Future of the Internet

Meanwhile, Internet freedom declined for the fifth time in a row in the U.S., and for the 11th consecutive year globally, according to Freedom House
Photo credit: Martin Krolikowski / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BY OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | JUN. 20, 2022

In April, sixty-one countries signed the so-called new “Declaration for the Future of the Internet,” re-igniting efforts to revive the faltering dream of global Internet freedom.

The Declaration is an expression of a united “belief in the potential of digital technologies to promote connectivity, democracy, peace, the rule of law, sustainable development, and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It aspires to create the foundation of “a future for the Internet that is an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure.”

Signatories

The Declaration’s signatories affirmed their “commitment to protecting and respecting human rights online and across the digital ecosystem.”

A White House statement listed Albania, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Cabo Verde, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, the European Commission, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Micronesia, Moldova, Montenegro, New Zealand, Niger, North Macedonia, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and the United States, among the Declaration’s signatories.

A few countries often characterized as “democratic,” such as India, Ghana, and South Korea, are curiously missing from the list.

Declining global Internet freedom

Global Internet freedom has been consecutively declining for at least a decade, according to recent research-based reports and other works published by Freedom House, academics, and digital rights defenders from around the world.

Freedom House, a non-partisan Washington DC-based democracy advocacy organization, has been conducting research and publishing authoritative reports on democracy, global political rights and civil liberties for decades. The organization’s “Freedom on the Net” report, an annual survey and analysis of Internet freedom around the world, was established in 2009.

Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2016” report found that “Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.”

The organization’s “Freedom on the Net 2018” report, a study of 65 countries that highlighted “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” stated that the Internet was “growing less free around the world,” and that “democracy itself” was “withering” as a result. According to the report:

Disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward 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.

Internet freedom declined for the fifth time in a row in the U.S., and for the 11th consecutive year globally, according to Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2021” report. The biggest deteriorations happened in Belarus, Myanmar, and Uganda, “where state forces cracked down amid electoral and constitutional crises.”

The “Freedom on the Net 2021” report also highlighted “The Global Drive to Control Big Tech,” which is causing “an unprecedented assault on free expression” and further decline in global Internet freedom. According to the report’s co-authors Adrian Shahbaz and Allie Funk:

In the high-stakes battle between states and technology companies, the rights of internet users have become the main casualties. A growing number of governments are asserting their authority over tech firms, often forcing the businesses to comply with online censorship and surveillance. These developments have contributed to an unprecedented assault on free expression online, causing global internet freedom to decline for an 11th consecutive year.

The “Freedom on the Net 2021” report also highlighted the global coronavirus pandemic’s role in fueling digital repression worldwide.

Freedom in the World

Freedom House’s flagship annual report, “Freedom in the World,” published since 1973, assess “the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world”. The “Freedom in the World 2022” report, which assessed 195 countries and 15 territories around the world, highlighted “the global expansion of authoritarian rule”.

As per the report’s co-authors, Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz:

Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism, meanwhile, are increasingly tilting toward the latter. The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.

When did it get this bad? According to Repucci and Slipowitz:

The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.

In the face of this dire threat to global freedom, the new Declaration for the Future of the Internet argues that democracy and Internet freedom will prevail over rampaging digital authoritarianism.

Digital authoritarianism

The Declaration’s signatories are aware of the risks and challenges Internet users all over the world face today. According to the Declaration:

As we increasingly work, communicate, connect, engage, learn, and enjoy leisure time using digital technologies, our reliance on an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet will continue to grow. Yet we are also aware of the risks inherent in that reliance and the challenges we face.

The challenges include the burgeoning digital authoritarianism highlighted by Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2018” report, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism.”

The White House’s statement on the Declaration highlighted the spectre of “rising digital authoritarianism”:

The Internet has been revolutionary. It provides unprecedented opportunities for people around the world to connect and to express themselves, and continues to transform the global economy, enabling economic opportunities for billions of people. Yet it has also created serious policy challenges. Globally, we are witnessing a trend of rising digital authoritarianism where some states act to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news sites, interfere with elections, promote disinformation, and deny their citizens other human rights. At the same time, millions of people still face barriers to access and cybersecurity risks and threats undermine the trust and reliability of networks.

Digital authoritarianism entails “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations,” according to a 2019 Brookings Institute report.

Authoritarians

China, which “ranks as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row,” with authorities imposing “draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting, and mundane daily communications,” according to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2022” report, is missing from the list of the Declaration’s initial signatories. So are the usual Internet freedom and human rights violators, including, Belarus, Egypt, Mexico, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

In the past several years, these authoritarian regimes have been “actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage,” according to Ronald Deibert, the founder and director of The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto, Canada.

Deibert is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Internet, digital rights, and digital authoritarianism. He is the winner of multiple awards, including the prestigious 2021 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, awarded by the Writers’ Trust of Canada for his 2020 book, “RESET: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society“.

The abstract to Deibert’s article, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published in the Journal of Democracy in 2015, reads:

Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage. This article argues that cyberspace authoritarianism has evolved over at least three generations of information controls. Moreover, authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques, such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media. The article outlines the driving forces behind resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace and questions what can be done to counter the tightening grip of authoritarians on cyberspace.

In the past couple of years, Deibert and his team at the The Citizen Lab have published cutting-edge research on the proliferation of technologies advancing digital authoritarianism globally.

Positive vision

The Declaration assures us that the signatories “intend to work toward an environment that reinforces our democratic systems and promotes active participation of every citizen in democratic processes, secures and protects individuals’ privacy, maintains secure and reliable connectivity, resists efforts to splinter the global Internet, and promotes a free and competitive global economy.” Furthermore, the Declaration’s partner signatories “invite other partners who share this vision to join us in working together, with civil society and other stakeholders, to affirm guiding principles for our role in the future of the global Internet.”

The Biden-Harris administration’s statement on the Declaration claimed that “democratic governments and other partners are rising to the challenge” posed by digital authoritarianism and the ongoing “global expansion of authoritarian rule“. According to the statement:

This Declaration represents a political commitment among Declaration partners to advance a positive vision for the Internet and digital technologies. It reclaims the promise of the Internet in the face of the global opportunities and challenges presented by the 21st century. It also reaffirms and recommits its partners to a single global Internet – one that is truly open and fosters competition, privacy, and respect for human rights.

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world”. The EFF responded to the announcement of the new Declaration:

The high-level vision and principles expressed in the Declaration—to have a single, global network that is truly open, fosters competition, respects privacy and inclusion, and protects human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people—are laudable.

But clearly they are aspirational. Implementing these principles will require many signatory countries to change their current practices, which include censoring online speech of marginalized communities, failing to build out affordable high-speed internet, using malware and mass surveillance to spy on users, fostering misinformation, secretly collecting personal information, and pressuring big tech platforms to police online speech.

According to the EFF, while the Declaration spelled out “important standards for achieving a free, open, and human rights-protecting Internet,” the signatories must now “deliver on the Declaration’s promises, by aligning their practices, policies, and laws with its principles”.

Read the full text of the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet.”

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based digital artist, blogger, photographer, graphic designer, web designer, digital rights enthusiast, aspiring filmmaker, former political aide, former international development administrator, and online publisher. Obert is the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive, an independent political blog dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad