IN a recent article, a former president of the Information Technology Association of Nigeria, Jimson Olufuye wrote in part: “The Internet as we know it, and experience it each day, is a network of networks currently connecting more than a third (2.5 billion) of the world population. African Internet users grew by more than 3500 per cent2 from 1.5million in 2000 to 167million in 2012. Nigeria alone accounts for 48 per cent of that figure from less than one per cent penetration in 2000. Internet indeed is the undisputable engine for socio-economic growth and development of our time. It is projected that more than 50 billion things will be connected by the Internet by the year 2020.And, if the promise of the digital age is to be achieved, as it must, to address our world’s core challenges, the next two billion Internet users must be added in the next few years.
“As the significant enabler of socio-economic wellness of citizens around the world, it is no longer a surprise to see heightened interest develop among governments around the world about how it should be governed, or controlled.”
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in its latest report on broadband access globally notes that while technological innovation has increased drastically over the years, Internet freedom has not grown proportionately. In many countries, the ITU says, the controls and regulations that have been applied do not conform to international standards for justifiable limits on freedom of expression.
“Too often, they are not transparent, not intended for legitimate purposes, and not proportional to the types of speech they seek to limit,” the ITU report says.
More and more countries around the world are installing laws that authorise content control through filtering with issues of issues of terrorism, copyright infringement, hate speech, defamation, privacy protection and child protection being used as the basis to limit freedom.
“Internet freedom is complex. A balance must be found between sometimes conflicting imperatives, including freedom of expression, rights to dignity and reputation, rights to safety, intellectual property rights, respect for privacy, freedom of association and belief, among others,” says ITU.
Broad surveillance, new laws controlling web content, and growing arrests of social-media users drove a worldwide decline in Internet freedom in the past year, according to a new study released on October 3, 2013 by an international advocacy group Freedom House, known as Freedom on the Net 2013. The report ranked Iceland as the country with the greatest Internet freedom globally.
Authorities in 29 countries evaluated and blocked certain types of political and social content while others completely blocked social media and communication applications like Twitter Facebook, You Tube and Skype. “Instead of blocking objectionable websites, many governments opt to contact the content hosts or social-media sites and request that the content be taken down. While takedown notices can be a legitimate means of dealing with illegal content when the right safeguards are in place, many governments and private actors are abusing the practice by threatening legal action and forcing the removal of material without a proper court order,” the report said.
With the increased use of social media, more governments are introducing new laws or amending existing ones to regulate speech and behaviour on cyberspace.
Nonetheless, Freedom on the Net 2013 also found that activists are becoming more effective at raising awareness of emerging threats and, in several cases, have helped forestall new repressive measures. “While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of censorship in many countries, governments are increasingly looking at who is saying what online, and finding ways to punish them,” said project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House, Sanja Kelly. “In some countries, a user can get arrested for simply posting on Facebook or for “liking” a friend’s comment that is critical of the authorities,” she added.
Freedom on the Net 2013, which identifies key trends in Internet freedom in 60 countries, evaluates each country based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
An uptick in surveillance was the year’s most significant trend. Even as revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden prompted an important global debate about the US government’s secret surveillance activities, Freedom on the Net 2013 found that 35 of the 60 countries assessed had broadened their technical or legal surveillance powers over the past year. Such monitoring is especially problematic in countries where it is likely to be used for the suppression of political dissent and civic activism. In several authoritarian states, activists reported that their e-mail and other communications were presented to them during interrogations or used as evidence in politicised trials, with repercussions that included imprisonment, torture, and even death.
Many governments, fearing the power of social media to propel nationwide protests, also scrambled to pass laws restricting online expression. Since May 2012, 24 of the 60 countries assessed adopted legislation or directives that threatened Internet freedom, with some imposing prison sentences of up to 14 years for certain types of online speech.
Overall, 34 out of 60 countries assessed in the report experienced a decline in Internet freedom. Notably, Vietnam and Ethiopia continued on a worsening cycle of repression; Venezuela stepped up censorship during presidential elections; and three democracies—India, the US and Brazil—saw troubling declines.
Iceland and Estonia topped the list of countries with the greatest degree of Internet freedom. While the overall score for the US declined by five points on a 100-point scale, in large part due to the recently revealed surveillance activities, it still earned a spot among the top five countries examined. China, Cuba, and Iran were found to be the most repressive countries in terms of Internet freedom for the second consecutive year.
The advocacy group lamented that many countries used legitimate concerns like cybercrime and online identity theft to introduce legal measures that criminalise critical speech.
Internet service providers and webhosting companies in 22 countries were also held legally liable for the content posted by their users prompting them to sensor any unfavourable content. Those who failed to comply with self-censorship were automatically shut down.
In parts of China, India and Venezuela for instance, Internet and mobile services were temporarily suspended during political events and moments of social unrest.
Bloggers, hackers and analysts were also hired to manipulate online discussions by spreading propaganda and discrediting government critics while defending unpopular policies.
The restricted Internet freedom in most countries surveyed directly reflected the media freedom, though some countries whose Internet use remained generally unmonitored had a partly free press.
Of the 14 African countries included in the sample, only Kenya and South Africa were considered to have complete Internet freedom. Countries that were ranked as partly free include Angola, Egypt, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. The only two countries found to not be free were Ethiopia and Sudan, mainly due to the blocking of various social media and other communication applications. Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt were listed among those that had retrogressed in open access of Internet content.
Last year authorities in Egypt repeatedly throttled mobile Internet service in the areas around political protests, preventing activists from communicating through social networks and VoIP services.
Before the military take-over, administrators of anti-government and anti-Muslim Brotherhood Facebook groups were targeted in cases of extra-legal abductions and killings. Through social media, anti-Morsy campaigners were able to organise themselves and hold protests for days on end demanding for the president’s resignation.
Non-state actors in Libya continued to add to the sense of insecurity in the online media environment. Militia groups were reported to abduct a social media activist and threaten a British journalist into leaving the country.
While Internet access was on the rise in Nigeria, the government, according to the report, contracted a foreign company to help monitor Internet communication and even budgeted for the purchase of surveillance systems.
The Protection of State Information Bill passed by the South African parliament is listed as one of the limiting factors to both online and media freedom as it will criminalise reporting on classified State information and intentional access of leaked information online.
But despite the setbacks, the report adds that there has been growing activism globally against invasion of privacy and limiting access to content. “Citizens’ groups are able to more rapidly disseminate information about negative proposals and put pressure on the authorities. In addition, ICTs have started to play an important role in advocacy for positive change on other policy topics, from corruption to women’s rights, enabling activists and citizens to more effectively organise, lobby and hold their governments accountable,” the report said.
“Internet freedom is complex. A balance must be found between sometimes conflicting imperatives, including freedom of expression, rights to dignity and reputation, rights to safety, intellectual property rights, respect for privacy, freedom of association and belief, among others,” says ITU.happy wheels