Sixty eight years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking a new global prioritization of human rights for all people. In the wake of the massive and costly destruction to human civilization of World War II, nations worldwide recognized respect for basic human rights as imperative to both sovereign and global stability and advancement.
Among the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Declaration, laid out in Article 19, is the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Though written well before the online era began, this clause has never been more relevant – or threatened – than it is today.
Two-thirds of all internet users globally live in places where voicing opposition to state institutions may be censored
The internet is a platform of unprecedented global reach and scope; information is created, shared, and consumed as rapidly as one can type, potentially creating a more efficient, well-informed, and prosperous world. But only if that platform is open for all.
In 2016, two-thirds of all internet users globally live in places where online criticism of their country’s institutions – the government, military, or ruling elite – may be censored, a Freedom House report finds. Cracking down on the online activity of journalists, human rights defenders, and regular citizens alike is quickly becoming the practical norm for repressive governments worldwide.
China’s internet blocking and filtering capabilities have grown increasingly sophisticated on both websites and popular messaging platforms such as WeChat, scanning for banned terms that include “Tiananmen Square” and “Dalai Lama.” Beyond censorship, China’s surveillance capabilities have also made the internet a frightening tool for social control and manipulation. Within broader Chinese society, this online crackdown complements a quickly closing space for right lawyers, NGOs, journalists, and other human rights defenders.
Iran’s government is moving to further restrict Iranian access to the global internet by creating a closed network more akin to an intranet. Iran actively blocks social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but these censorship efforts have been described by communications and information technology minister Mahmoud Vaezi as “inefficient.” The new domestic-only network would be used to promote state propaganda while enticing users with fast connection speeds and low costs in attempts to negate the loss of access to the open internet.
Elsewhere, in recent months Turkey and Bangladesh blocked access to news sites during politically turbulent times, leaving citizens in the dark while stifling the effectiveness of opposition movements and political protests. In Azerbaijan, pro-government trolls harass opposition voices online in an attempt to silence and discourage dissent. And as a new monarch takes over in Thailand, foreign media like the BBC have had articles blocked and their office visited by police, while the first lese-majeste case under the new king was filed just two days into his reign against a university student who had shared a BBC article on Facebook. The tactics and government sensitivities may vary by country, but the end result is the same: a blocked internet, silenced voices, and violated human rights.
Repressive nation states are collaborating to increase internet censorship
One of the most disturbing development of late may not be a singular censorship event occurring in any one country, but is rather the increasing confluence of repressive nation states collaborating in the name of increased internet censorship. Russia is seeking help from China to increase its internet censorship capabilities and build out its own Great Firewall. Iran got help from China to build its aforementioned “national” internet, and Zambia reportedly relied on Chinese firms to build in deep packet inspection capabilities on Zambian ISPs.
Repressive regimes are also enabled by the widespread sale of censorship and surveillance technology by private actors. The 2015 Hacking Team revelations showed how the governments of Bahrain, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and many others purchased and utilized surveillance technology to monitor journalists and activists, sometimes even outside their borders.
Circumventing censorship and supporting free expression
Despite these immense challenges, internet users in repressive environments continue to find ways to exercise their human rights both online and off. Risking reprisal in the form of detention, arrest, harassment, and even death, it is these individuals that stand at the forefront of the fight for free speech, expression, and human rights. And it is for them that we support open technologies and communities that increase free expression, circumvent censorship, and obstruct repressive surveillance.
On this International Human Right Day, it is they that we stand with – the bloggers, social media users, circumvention technology makers and adopters, and investigative journalists – who continue operating on the frontlines in the struggle for a free and open internet.