The World Wide Web has often been touted as a brave new world of civil liberties and freedom. Cyberspace is, after all, a place that has no use for national or state boundaries, and the ideals of the third web promote openness and freedom of information for all.
It’s a compelling vision of a Utopian ideal, but the sad truth is that it bears little similarity to the state on the internet today. In fact, at a time when more people than ever are heading into cyberspace, online freedom is showing a consistent decline from one year to the next.
What are you doing?
It’s a question that is increasingly being asked and answered by those with the stated aim of protecting the populace. But while few would argue with internet monitoring to identify those linked with crimes like terrorism or child abuse, we inevitably arrive at that time-honored question of where you draw the line.
For example, online gaming is hugely popular across the globe, but what about gray areas like casino games? Ostensibly, there is no law to prevent a player from visiting a site like Comeon Casino and spinning the reels, regardless of their home state – the legal complexities apply only to financial providers facilitating transactions. However, we have seen examples across the globe where sites like these are being blocked.
The rise and rise of fake news
President Trump has a knack of polarizing opinions every time he opens his mouth. But one area in which even his harshest critics acknowledge that he has a point is when it comes to the danger of fake news. However, is the true risk the fake news itself or the increasingly draconian measures implemented in order to silence it?
Pro-democracy think tank Freedom House reported last year that government initiatives to stifle fake news are increasingly being aimed at silencing those who express any sort of dissent towards the status quo. Its 2018 report was the eighth in succession to show a that online freedom around the world is in decline.
Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz told reporters that governments are increasingly using the “fight against fake news” as a convenient way to “jail prominent journalists and social media critics, often through laws that criminalize the spread of false information.”
17 out of 65 countries surveyed by Freedom House have adopted new laws that place restrictions on online media. Of these, 13 have used them to prosecute their citizens for disseminating false information. Of course, many are significantly more restrictive than the United States, but even here, the repeal of net neutrality rules by the Federal Communications Commission meant a decline in internet freedom for millions of Americans.
There is no easy answer, and perhaps Adrian Shahbaz, a Freedom House research director put it best. He said: “While deliberately falsified content is a genuine problem, some governments are increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a pretense to consolidate their control over information and suppress dissent.”