The dark side of internet policy: How flawed policy can lead to censorship, surveillance, and shutdowns

20 Dec 2017 10:45h - 12:15h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

The dark side of Internet policy exists and is reflected in cases of abuse of freedom of speech laws, governmental pressure, blocking, and manipulation. The moderator of this session, Mr Dominic Bellone, Senior Program Officer at Counterpart International, explained that the panel would tackle these issues with special focus on  women’s freedom of expression and regional perspectives.

Zimbabwe experienced a regime change recently, yet according to Mr Earnest Mudzengi, Executive Director at Media Centre, the old system of online oppression remains. Systemic suppression of freedom of expression is executed through the law on cybersecurity and cybercrime, free market policies oriented towards business rather than citizens, lack of citizen participation, and governmental use of threats. The constitution guarantees freedom of media, speech, and access to information, yet the implementation is problematic. People are labelled as a threat to security even after acts such as commenting on prices of goods via WhatsApp.

Mr Andrii Paziuk, Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, explained the division in Ukrainian society where people are either citizens or patriots, and they have to choose between national security and democracy. In times of conflict, democratic mechanisms disappear and there is increased surveillance. The judiciary works behind closed doors and without public consultation. Mr Vitaliy Moroz, Director of New Media Development, Internews-Ukraine, agreed and added that there is no proper regulation of telecoms because the government sees the Internet from a security perspective. He sees the approach of the government as ambivalent, as it wants to block Russian companies online, and steps on human rights at the same time. ‘To fight Russia, they use Russian methods,’ Moroz said, assuming an unlimited function to block content.

From the South Asia perspective, Mr Nalaka Gunawardene, journalist and development communication specialist, commented that the consequence of long-lasting conflict on the Internet is an authoritarian government. In Sri Lanka there is a ‘suspected deep state that even civilian politicians seem unable to regulate,’ he added. Although convergence is happening, remaining nationalism affects the entirety of Internet governance. Hate speech, low digital literacy, and lack of rule of law remain problematic.

Ms Sachini Perera, a feminist activist currently based in Malaysia, stressed that as in the offline world, structural inequalities exist in the online world. National security and public morality perspectives limit free speech. Women’s identities are framed and attacked on a gender or sexual basis. Perera added that authorities do not differentiate between consensual and non-consensual expression online, but choose which policies suit them at a given time. Existing laws on gender violence online are not appropriate.

Ms Iria Puyosa, a researcher and consultant from Ecuador, raised similar issues, saying that in Venezuela, which has no history of hate speech, ill-defined laws are passed and focus on expressions against the government. People are penalised and jailed for criticising the ruling party. Puyosa mentioned the new trend of political control through technology. A fingerprint database for electronic voting is now combined with the welfare system. The database includes more than 80% of the population, which can be put under pressure during elections and in regard to access to welfare services.

Mr Guy Berger, Director of the Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, asked to what extent policies with good intentions may have unintended negative effects. Berger called for better implementation of UNESCO’s Internet Universality indicators (rights, openness, accessibility, and multistakeholder participation: R-O-A-M). According to him, balancing rights, accountability, openness, and actors is the key. When choosing strategies to combat violent extremism online, governments can choose to block content or to leave it in place in order to survey it. R-O-A-M can help in evaluating the impact of each approach.

By Jana Mišić