Encryption Human Rights Internet Governance

Freedom on the Internet: Where does your country stand?

Out of the 3 billion users on the Internet, how many can trust that their online communications will not be monitored or censored? How many feel safe that they can express their opinions online and will not be arrested for their ideas? How many feel confident in communicating anonymously online?

For us this is a key element of an Internet of opportunity: Internet access is only meaningful if people can trust that their fundamental rights will be respected and protected online as well as offline. Access and trust go together: they can’t be considered as separate parts.

Released today, Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report offers a stark, and concerning, view on the current status of online freedoms. Out of the 65 countries assessed, the report concludes that Internet freedom in the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. Governments that had already expanded their arsenal of tools for controlling the online sphere are now strengthening their application of these methods.

Key trends identified in the report include:

  • Many governments are further shifting the burden of censorship to private companies by pressing them to remove content, even pushing them to proactively monitor their networks. Smaller local companies have little choice but to comply, whereas some international businesses have been more successful in addressing some government requests without resorting to outright takedown. The Internet Society doesn’t believe that companies’ primary role should be to police content online.
  • Surveillance has been on the rise globally, with governments in 14 of 65 countered having passed new laws to increased surveillance over the past year. Related to this, bans and restrictions on encryption and anonymity tools are being more common. The Internet Society believes that these developments hurt Internet users’ trust.

There are some notes of hope however: 15 countries registered overall improvements as part of the Report’s assessment. The year’s biggest gains occurred in Sri Lanka following the January 2015 elections, with unblocked websites and ceasing of prosecutions of Internet users. Cuba also registered an improvement after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States. Research also shows that widespread adoption of HTTPS (TLS) has made the blocking of specific content more difficult.

At the Internet Society, we believe in the power of the Internet to bring all of us closer together. We believe the Internet is a tool that can empower everyone to express their true potential. In practice, that means anything from creating the next successful global app, finding educational treasures online, revolutionizing trade, to simply staying in touch with family and friends at the reach of a button. As we work with many others around the world to bring the rest of the world online, we firmly  believe that the respect and protection of online freedoms is a pillar of trust, itself the basis of all economic and social exchanges online.

We encourage those countries who have made concrete steps toward an open and rights-respecting Internet to go further on this direction. And in those countries where steps have been taken away from an open Internet, we ask those governments – and citizens within those countries – to re-examine the consequences of those actions and move toward an Internet where opportunity is available to everyone.

Where does your country stand in the 2015 Freedom on the Net report?  And what will you do to help improve that standing?

Human Rights

A Ray of Light Shines on Internet Rights

The right to speak locally and globally, the right of expression and creativity and the right to form community are rights intrinsic to our humanity. 

The Internet, by the very nature of its technical architecture, allows individuals and groups of individuals to speak directly to each other and to the world at large without the requirement or necessity of content intermediaries. The freedom enabled by the Internet to express one’s own ideas, one’s opinion of another’s idea, to advocate or to disassociate with the collective views of other speakers, to associate locally and globally, and to allow for human creativity and innovation is unprecedented in history.

As our colleague Raúl Echeberría wrote last week, this precious Internet freedom is, however, volatile around the world. There, Raúl expressed the Internet Society’s support for our Yemen chapter in asking the Yemeni authorities to restore full and open Internet access for all the people of Yemen. Not only in Yemen, today torn by internal strife, but across the globe, the threat to free expression is growing at an alarming rate . We are witnessing, in far too many places, government intervention on the Internet resulting in pervasive surveillance of users, restrictions to access, outright prohibitions on speech, active censorship, and even the threat of imprisonment for publication of content. The threat to human rights is deeply worrying.

Last week, two bright rays of light broke through this gloomy scene. The Supreme Court of India struck down, in its entirety, a pernicious law that took direct aim at the heart of Internet freedom. Section s.66A of India’s Information Technology Act of 2000 made it a crime for people to send messages or post information on the Internet that could be construed as “grossly offensive,” “menacing,” or known to be “false” and meant to cause “annoyance”, “inconvenience” or “injury” (for example). Those convicted of violating the law could be fined and imprisoned for up to three years. In finding this section of the law in violation of Indian citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, the Court provided a comprehensive analysis of Indian law upholding an individual’s right to free expression as against the state’s role to “promote the general public interest”. It also referred to, with some elegance, the US Supreme Court Justice Jackson’s statement in American Communications Association v Douds 94 L. Ed.925, namely, that “Thought control is a copyright of totalitarianism, and we have no claim to it.”. While, as others have commented, there is still much work to do, we commend the many civil society organizations in India that filed cases in the past few years challenging the harmful provisions of Section s.66A.

And, late last week, as our colleague Nicolas Seidler noted here , the UN Human Rights Council decided to establish a new UN Special Rapporteur on “The Right of Privacy in the Digital Age”. It is noteworthy that, in creating this new mandate, the Council recognized that the “exercise of the right to privacy is important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and is one of the foundations of a democratic society.” The mandate of the Special Rapporteur will include special consideration of issues related to new technologies, including surveillance and consideration of metadata as potential personal information. This mandate will also raise global political awareness about the need to protect the right to privacy in the digital age.

What is particularly important about these developments is an emerging recognition that the denial by governments of users’ Internet freedom cannot be justified by vague and unspecified claims of national security and by unsubstantiated use of the states’ police power for the purported safety of the people of the state.

Indeed, the Internet Society has consistently urged that the right to free speech and expression must exist side by side with the need for security on the Internet.

And we have urged that Internet security can only be achieved through what we call “collaborative security” . Top down, onerous government restrictions on freedom of expression thwart the human spirit; they do not protect it.

As a global organization comprised of 90 staff, 71,000 members, 133 organizations and 108 Chapters active in 92 countries from Australia to Zimbabwe, the Internet Society is committed to an Internet that is open and available to all. The ability to connect, communicate and collaborate is an unchanging, “invariant” inherent in the Internet. The right to speak locally and globally, the right of expression and creativity and the right to form community are rights intrinsic to our humanity.

The Internet Society is embedded in the fabric of organizations and networks that constitute the Internet technical community. We advocate for the right of users to protect and secure their own data, for ethical data protection by all, and for a collaborative approach to security. And, underpinning these technical and policy recommendations is our fundamental belief that human rights online are the same as human rights offline.

We applaud the decision of the Supreme Court of India and the resolution of the Human Rights Council. We urge other governments to speak with authority on behalf of Internet rights. And we urge users, providers and commercial interests around the world to do the same. The Internet is a network of networks – we all have a collective responsibility for its future.

Image credit: Stefan Le Breton on Flickr.

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Capturing Global Trends and Emerging Threats to Internet Freedom

Since its inception, the internet has proven itself as a powerful tool for immense social change and democratization. Online platforms have inherently altered the way people communicate, conduct business, socialize, and participate in public life. At the same time, the rise of online communications has led to notable policy challenges, ranging from cybersecurity to surveillance to content regulation. Amid a never-ending cycle of news reports about government collection of metadata, cyberattacks from hostile nations, and so-called “Twitter revolutions” – what can we say about the state of internet freedom and its future? Where should policymakers and other stakeholders direct their attention among competing trends and priorities?

Conducting a longitudinal study of internet freedom presents a number of inherent challenges, but this research is vital to making informed choices to keep the internet free and open. Throughout the ebbs and flows in the global conversation around internet freedom, Freedom House’s annual report Freedom on the Net provides a consistent measurement of countries’ performance on 21 discrete indicators—ranging from questions concerning access, content, and rights—to bring to light both global trends and important local developments in the field.

The report serves as a platform for activists around the world to engage policymakers and other stakeholders in research-based advocacy. Additionally, the report’s findings provide essential context to these global debates in order to complicate prevailing myths about the state of internet freedom that may cloud the decisions of various stakeholders. Apart from Freedom on the Net, resources such as ISOC’s Global Internet Report are indispensable for anyone hoping to better understand the immense potential of the internet and how to best utilize it for social good.

Sub-Saharan Africa, as just one example, has been the focus of efforts to expand access to ICTs, and many success stories have emerged where entrepreneurs, humanitarian organizations, and tech experts have capitalized on these technologies for social good. However, our research across the region has shown that over the years, expanding ICT access has led governments to pay greater attention to the disruptive power of the internet, resulting in an increase in restrictive policies and declines in internet freedom. Half of the countries under study enacted new surveillance laws over the past year that aim to increase the government’s ability to monitor and intercept online or mobile phone communications, and more bloggers, online journalists, and ordinary internet users were arrested for their online activities than in previous years. These kinds of trends are essential for policymakers and technology companies to take into account: as ICT access expands in the region, so do the threats and challenges for ICT users.

This type of consistent quantitative analysis—the number and types of new laws that are passed, the number of bloggers that are arrested, or the websites blocked—generates powerful insight into the state of internet freedom on regional and global levels. Not all developments in internet freedom can be captured through quantitative analysis alone, though. Each year, Freedom House also publishes individual narrative reports written by analysts in each country under study, providing detailed qualitative analysis of the local contexts in which internet freedom battles are fought. Many countries lack consistent data about ICT access and policies, or are intentionally opaque about surveillance practices. These individual country reports provide various audiences with an immediate snapshot of the most pressing threats to internet freedom in a given country, and highlight the ways in which different governments favor some restrictive methods over others—for example, choosing to arrest and intimidate online activists as a means of discouraging dissent, while generally blocking very little content.

To produce this detailed analysis, we rely on a team of over 70 contributors around the world—some of whom operate under repressive or authoritarian regimes—to undertake thorough research by analyzing laws, conducting interviews, and testing the accessibility of websites. In some cases, the security situation in a given country is so fragile that researching internet rights puts these analysts at considerable risk, and it is an ongoing challenge in the field of internet research to ensure the safety and security of those individuals on the ground.

In addition to identifying global trends and producing country reports, the 2014 edition of Freedom on the Net highlighted emerging threats to internet freedom—threats that may either be isolated to a few countries but are gaining traction around the world, or issues that are pervasive but lack substantial attention from the global policy community. Data localization requirements, a lack of cybersecurity, and harassment of women and LBGTI users were all identified as trends that are placing the rights of internet users at increasing risk.

As issues related to internet freedom continue to make headlines, policymakers can be understandably prone to reactive approaches, formulating action plans based on the pressing issues of the day. Long-term, global research based on a consistent methodology can provide much needed context to these decisions. Moving forward, research of this nature will continue to face challenges, but will ultimately provide essential tools for stakeholders who are fighting to keep the internet open and sustainable.

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Provoking National Boundaries on the Internet? A chilling thought…

The impact of the recently revealed US government data collection practices may go well beyond the privacy ramifications outlined in our statement: expect a chilling effect on global, resilient network architecture. As governments of other countries realize how much of their citizens’ traffic flows through the US, whether or not it is destined for any user or service there, expect to see moves to curtail connections to and through the US.

Let’s consider how it happens. The reality is that it may be cheaper, easier, and faster to send a packet from Vancouver (Canada) to Toronto (Canada) via Seattle (United States) than any all-Canadian route — but that makes the traffic subject to US inspection.

Or, many international connections out of Latin America terminate in Miami, because that provides the most direct link to all other continents. But, that means traffic from Santiago (Chile) to London (UK) may well pass through the US and be subjected to US government inspection/collection.

The first situation can be addressed by building more Internet exchange points (IXPs) to make it economically viable to keep Canadian Internet traffic in Canada. The second is a little harder to address without moving continents closer together, although it is reasonable to expect that some other, non-US location will emerge as a preferred nexus for Latin American inter-continental traffic.

But, before we conclude this is just a messy and expensive question of network operators changing their connections, it’s important to take a step back and think about what this means for a resilient, robust Internet.

The Internet was not designed to recognize national boundaries. It’s not being rude — it just wasn’t relevant. Resiliency[1] [2] is achieved through diversity of infrastructure. Having multiple connections and different routes between key points ensures that traffic can “route around” network problems — nodes that are off the air because of technical, physical, or political interference, for example. We’ve seen instances where countries are impacted by disaster but at least some of that country’s websites remain accessible: if the ccTLD has a mirror outside the impacted network, and if the websites are hosted/mirrored elsewhere, they’re still accessible. This can be incredibly important when a natural disaster occurs and there is a need to be able to get to local resources.

The more there is a push to retrofit the Internet to align with national borders for the sake of maintaining apparent control over all the resources (as opposed to considered network architectural reasons), the more we run the risk of undermining the diversity that gives the Internet the resiliency it has today. The Internet works through collaboration; making decisions on the assumption of territorial boundaries weakens it at every step.

For certain, there are legitimate concerns that policymakers have about security of their networks and privacy of their citizens. In developing policies to address these concerns, it’s important that policymakers bear in mind that resiliency is a key component of security, trust and interoperability. As one of those considerations, the impact on network resiliency should be properly weighed as a negative side effect when proposing the kind of broad scale tracking that the the US is apparently doing.

On the Internet, no nation is an island.