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Recently, the nonpartisan think tank New America published a report called “The Digital Deciders: How a group of often overlooked countries could hold the keys to the future of the global internet.” The purpose of this report – authored by Robert Morgus, Jocelyn Woolbright and Justin Sherman – is to survey how nations around the world approach internet governance. It’s a seminal guide for designing international cyber strategies and shaping diplomatic conversations. It also includes a data visualization tool through which you can create your own rankings, showing how countries view/behave toward the Internet.

Questioned about the report, Justin Sherman, Cybersecurity Policy Fellow at New America and co-author of the report, noted via email:

“Using data points from social media use to internet penetration to assorted freedom indexes, we studied nation-states around the world and organized them into three groups: global and open, sovereign and closed and the ‘digital deciders.’ The first group of countries, global and open, is comprised of the likes of Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, while the second group, sovereign and controlled, is comprised of the likes of the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, China, Russia and Iran. These countries have already taken decisive actions one way or the other, whether throttling traffic from foreign news sites or defending free speech on the internet. It’s the third group, the ‘digital deciders,’ who have yet to make key decisions about things like internet censorship, net neutrality and online surveillance—and may therefore hold important sway over the future of the global network. Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia are just some of the often-overlooked countries in this group.”

Is the “global and open” internet free?

Reading the report, one question came into my mind: is the Internet really free in “global and open” countries? What is the level of freedom on the Internet? The last question was central to the recent report from Freedom House which concluded that “digital authoritarianism is on the rise.”

“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.”

The report assessed the freedom of the internet status of 65 countries, and the results show that 34% of the population is not free, 33% is party free and only 20% is free. China had the worst record of any country in 2018. Its officials help to train other countries in digital authoritarianism, holding seminars with representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries assessed. Internet freedom fell in the United States, largely thanks to the repeal of net neutrality laws.

Of the 65 countries assessed, 26 experienced a drop in online freedom, with almost half of all declines relating to elections. Half of the governments had used paid commentators, bots and trolls to try and manipulate online conversations. Almost a third of the countries passed or proposed new laws to restrict online media, citing the fight against “fake news.” There was also an increase in surveillance by 18 governments, many of which are working to weaken encryption to gain unfettered access to data. The report is actually painting the future of the internet with dark colors.

The last point – surveillance by governments – is a direct reference to the Five Eyes alliance that targets to increase government powers to seek access to otherwise private information when the courts authorized it, a concept known as “lawful access.” The Five Eyes alliance (comprised of USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) – countries belonging to the “open and global” cluster of the internet – is demanding the tech companies to cooperate voluntarily to create backdoors to the encryption protocols protecting our privacy.

The issue of how free the internet really is was touched upon in a recent opinion article by the Editorial Board of The New York Times, which argued that “Internet censorship and surveillance were once hallmarks of oppressive governments — with Egypt, Iran and China being prime examples. It’s since become clear that secretive digital surveillance isn’t just the domain of anti-democratic forces. The Snowden revelations in 2013 knocked the United States off its high horse, and may have pushed the technology industry into an increasingly agnostic outlook on human rights.”

Discussing the issue of a fragmented / clustered global Internet, as this has been described in the surveys both by New America and Freedom House, it is highlighted that “The power of a handful of platforms and services combined with the dismal state of international cooperation across the world pushes us closer and closer to a splintered internet. Meanwhile, American companies that once implicitly pushed democratic values abroad are more reticent to take a stand” because “American corporations do little to counteract Balkanization and instead do whatever is necessary to expand their operations. If the future of the internet is a tripartite cold war, Silicon Valley wants to be making money in all three of those worlds.”

The recent attack on Pittsburgh’s synagogue fueled once more the debate over whether private tech companies can enforce the law and ban access to the internet to other private companies. The advocates of free speech are warning that “the tech companies were standing on a slippery slope in their decision to remove content.”

A year earlier, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a blog post that “We must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with,” adding that “Entities such as foreign governments might invoke the same power to delist websites based on political considerations.” The EFF post concluded that “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one — not the government and not private commercial enterprises — should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”

How much freedom of speech can we stand?

In a recent radio show of What’s Working in Washington, hosted by Jonathan Aberman with guests Shanlon Wu, Thomas Clare and Richard Levick, the question that was raised was “how can you be respectful of people’s feelings and their experience as minorities, people of color, and at the same time, you want to foster the free exchange of ideas.” The guests highlighted that, today, if we don’t like something that is said, we label it as hate speech or defamation or harassing speech, which has led to the words losing their meaning, which is “a real detriment to our society.” The debate on free speech concluded that we cannot only encourage speech that we like and oppose and confront speech that we don’t like because this leads to “erosion of trust.” The latter is highly correlated to the desire to make “free speech consequence-free.”

Why is internet controlled in the “Sovereign and Controlled” countries?

The Freedom on the Internet report gives one answer: “With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities. Over the past 12 months in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, false rumors and hateful propaganda that were spread online incited jarring outbreaks of violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Such rifts often serve the interests of antidemocratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states, which have actively encouraged them through content manipulation.”

On the other hand, The Digital Deciders report says that “Their internets largely mirror their political systems.” Robert Morgus, Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative and International Security Program and co-author of the report, commented via email that “Concerns over computer insecurity are touted as one of the drivers of the reconsolidation of state sovereignty over the ICT networks in and within their physical borders. What remains to be seen is just how much of an effect this will have on the splintering of the global network. This report and the accompanying data tool is intended to shed light on the dynamics of this phenomenon around the world.”

If we place the policies of these countries towards internet into a historical and cultural framework, we realize that these countries are afraid of centrifugal forces due to the free flow of information. If we take a closer look at the history, culture, traditions and customs of these countries, we understand that they have always had authoritarian regimes because that was the only way to govern nomadic, less educated from various tribes and religions citizens. Otherwise, the countries will be fragmented in minutes. Turkey provides a fine example for the aforementioned. The 2011 Arab Spring and the fate of the local governments give them a good justification.

Should we regulate freedom on the internet?

Professor Mary Aiken recently published her latest essay “Life in Cyberspace,” where she says that “We are living through the largest unregulated social experiment of all time” and then questions: “Who is responsible when extreme content disastrously spills online – especially by means of technologies that are used by children and young people? Who is to blame: the individuals who commit the extreme acts, those who share the images and videos, the anti-social technologies that spread them further, or all of these? As a society, we need to decide who is responsible. Does the fault lie with service providers, software companies, and the leadership behind them? Moreover, what is the responsibility of social technology platforms? What is our collective position regarding ‘content pollution’ of cyberspace?”

Regulation. And since internet cannot self-regulate, we need a “transdisciplinary approach,” says Mary Aiken. “We need expert input from a wide array of disciplines to illuminate the problems and devise the best solutions. We need to stop expecting individuals to manage cyber issues for themselves or their families. Science, industry, governments, communities, and families need to come together to create a roadmap for cyber society.”

The Freedom on the Internet report agrees with Aiken’s suggestions:

If democracy is to survive the digital age, technology companies, governments, and civil society must work together to find real solutions to the problems of social media manipulation and abusive data collection. Multilateral and cross-sectoral coordination is required to promote digital literacy, identify malicious actors, and deny them the tools to fraudulently amplify their voices. When it comes to protecting data, users must be granted the power to ward off undue intrusions into their personal lives by both the government and corporations.

The MIT Technology Review takes it one step further in the September/October 2018 magazine. It wonders whether technology threatens democracy and goes on that “it would be as much of a mistake to simply blame technology for democracy’s ills as it was to hail technology as democracy’s savior. The turmoil of the past few years is of our societies’ own making. We need to pay more attention to how technology exacerbates those problems, but fixing them is not solely, or even mainly, a technological challenge.”

A final thought.

Reading the report, I was amazed to realize the resemblance of the “Global and Open vs. Sovereign and Controlled” map with the map of the Cold War era. They are almost identical as you may see below, with the exception of Turkey.

Coincidence or a depiction of the New Cold War?

Picture 1: World Map showing the two blocks during the Cold War in 1959


Picture 2: The Global and Open vs Sovereign and Controlled map from the Digital Deciders report