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The Internet Expands Freedom of Expression — If We Keep the Net Free

Adrian Shahbaz, Director of Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, explains how authoritarian governments in China and elsewhere are limiting their citizens’ access to the internet. What’s more, he warns, they are attempting to rewrite global rules governing the internet.

Interview with Adrian Shabaz March 22, 2022 //   13 minute read

Adrian Shahbaz is Director of Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, where he focuses on topics like emerging technologies’ impact on human rights and democratic values. That includes the impact on freedom of expression, which is a key subject in Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report.

The London School of Economics graduate spoke about internet freedom around the world with Chris Walsh, Deputy Director of the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. He explains in this conversation how authoritarian governments in China and elsewhere are limiting their citizens’ access to the internet. What’s more, he warns, they are attempting to rewrite global rules governing the internet. At the same time, democracies have the opportunity to use the private sector as well as government to enhance and protect freedom of expression on the internet.  

How do you define freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is the right and ability to express one's opinions and beliefs on a range of matters without fearing disproportionate consequences.

From a legal perspective, this is often translated into limits on the government’s ability to punish individuals for their expression, with some important exceptions. Some examples are incitement to violence, defamation, perjury, copyright infringement, and certain forms of commercial speech.

Free expression is also a helpful principle for governing speech and debate within communities that do not fall under the purview of the state. There’s tremendous value in fostering debate and challenging dogma. Still, these communities have a right to limit certain forms of expression for the purposes of upholding shared norms and standards. For example, online platforms run by companies and non-profit organizations may restrict content that is legal but undesirable or harmful to the user experience, such as obscenity, doxing, or spam.

You’ve written that: “The emancipatory power of the internet depends on its egalitarian nature.” Could you tell us more about what you mean?

What makes the internet so special, and in some ways, a force for the spreading of liberal democratic values, is that it opened up new possibilities for freedom of expression and access to information around the world.

In theory, your location does not dictate your opportunities from engaging online. No matter where you are based, you’re connected to the same global network. For me, this is a continuation of the Enlightenment ideal that your birthplace or background shouldn’t limit your personal growth. That’s core to my understanding of freedom.

What makes the internet so special, and in some ways, a force for the spreading of liberal democratic values, is that it opened up new possibilities for freedom of expression and access to information around the world.

Now, we have seen a breakdown of that dream. Many governments are putting up cyber borders that include draconian restrictions around freedom of expression and the free flow of data. They do so under the guise of protecting national security or state sovereignty. This trend of internet fragmentation is a grave threat to that Enlightenment ideal of the emancipation of the individual.

When the internet was first rising, many people thought it would spell the end of a lot of dictators, or at least compromise their ability to control populations. Unfortunately, dictators are being innovative about blocking access and expression online. What are you seeing from authoritarian nations about blocking online expression?

The internet did in fact disrupt many dictators’ longstanding monopoly on information. But it's true that policymakers and tech evangelists had been a bit naïve and unprepared for the ways that authoritarian forces would adapt. Your point touches on a broader trend of misplaced optimism for the integration of China into the international order. I don't think anyone was under any illusions about conditions for human rights in China during the late 90s and early 2000s. Yet there was hope that joining the WTO or connecting to the internet would lead to liberalization and political openings. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has only grown more authoritarian and repressive.

Now, we have seen a breakdown of that dream. Many governments are putting up cyber borders that include draconian restrictions around freedom of expression and the free flow of data. 

The CCP has been very savvy at taking the benefits that come with global connectivity, while building legal and technical mechanisms to maintain a tight level of control over what is happening in the country. China offers a model to many authoritarians and would-be authoritarians in how to control the internet.

From the very beginning, Chinese officials instituted a wide range of censorship regulations and built a technical apparatus to maintain state control. It was the first country, to my knowledge, to shut down the internet to millions of people in the Xinjiang autonomous region when riots occurred there in 2009. That tool of shutting down the internet to an entire population, which is essentially a form of collective punishment, has been mimicked by Egypt during the Arab Spring protests and by Iran around many protests there. Now internet shutdowns are happening in dozens of countries, often around protests and elections.

Chinese officials also developed a “Great Firewall” to filter online expression that the Communist Party disagrees with. Arguably no country has as sophisticated a system as China, but many have restricted foreign social media companies and websites from being accessible in the country. Another tactic is to outsource censorship to local companies by passing laws that make them liable for the content that others post to their platforms. This often leads to companies removing more content than is necessary out of fears of the legal repercussions.

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China and other authoritarians also sentence people to lengthy prison terms for independent journalism, discussion of human rights, and other forms of political, social, and religious expression. The rates of conviction in China are near 100%. There’s little hope to use the court system to defend freedom of expression.

Finally, there is surveillance. Governments pass laws and purchase tools to monitor the communications of users in real time or through stored communications. This helps them collect evidence that leads to their prosecution, but it also has a chilling effect on free expression as people fear they are being watched at all times.

Why should Americans be concerned about these models of internet suppression? Why does this matter to them specifically?

First and foremost, the erosion of the free and open internet harms human rights. But there are economic and security implications as well. U.S. companies will be locked out of major markets. Democracies will find themselves in a much more hostile world.

As we speak, major authoritarian powers are getting together at international forums like the United Nations to rewrite the rules of internet governance. China, Russia, Iran, and other countries are doing their best to reshape global norms to effectively shield themselves from criticism for their own human rights abuses. There are currently discussions around a new cybercrime treaty that would lead to the criminalization of a lot of speech that we would consider to be protected under freedom of expression.

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It’s often hard to fathom, but in the long term, norms matter. If we no longer live in a world where, at least on paper, there is a commitment to freedom of expression and human rights, then the foundations of democracy will begin to crumble. Disdain for democracy can spread from country to country. We already see an alarming adoration for illiberal politicians in Russia and Central Europe among certain American political currents. We live in an open, interconnected world where what is happening in other countries ultimately affects us.

The best way to counter authoritarian influence is to make sure that we are promoting democratic values around the world. We also need to build greater resilience against illiberal and authoritarian movements within democracies. This may involve greater civic education, protecting the integrity of elections, making sure that more people have the right vote, and protecting the independence of civil society.

Freedom on the Net has delved into how governments around the world are trying to regulate Big Tech companies. How should democracies hold Big Tech accountable while protecting free speech? Is this being done? If so, where?

This was one of the main findings of our 2021 report. We’re seeing global norms shift dramatically towards greater state intervention in the digital sphere.

Some of these measures are made in good faith, because real problems have arisen from, let's say, a lack of smart regulation of online activities. We see widespread misuse of data, manipulative market practices, and a lack of transparency and consistency around content moderation practices. We also see the proliferation of hatred and false or misleading information online, sometimes as part of a coordinated effort.

These are real challenges that affect the ability of people to use online tools in a way that is safe and equitable. But the best way to solve them isn't through censorship. That only hits the surface of the problem.

First and foremost, the erosion of the free and open internet harms human rights. But there are economic and security implications as well.

Before we enact solutions, we need to gather evidence that they will actually work. That’s why it’s important to focus on transparency first, because there's so much happening within tech companies that we're not aware of. Sometimes it feels like the only people who know how tech companies work are the people inside of them. We should require that platforms open up their systems to researchers and academics to better understand how they function, their impact on society, and how we can best fix them.

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We need to make sure that any new regulations don’t contravene core democratic principles. Over centuries, democracies have developed protocols around checks and balances and due process. Instead, governments are passing new laws that require companies to remove things quickly with very little transparency or due process. There needs to be some type of judicial oversight to make sure that we can hold both governments and tech companies accountable for any abuses.

How well are democracies doing — or not doing — in trying to strike this balance?

There are things to learn from different countries. In the European Union (EU), we have seen a concerted effort to use the power of the state to develop strong and thoughtful regulations around how to make sure that tech companies respect users' rights. There’s an incredible amount of constructive debate right now around the Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, and AI Act. And it seems like U.S. policymakers are finally taking notice.

At the same time, regulation is not the only answer. One of the advantages of a robust private sector is the ability to innovate and find solutions in a way that government cannot.

At the same time, regulation is not the only answer. One of the advantages of a robust private sector is the ability to innovate and find solutions in a way that government cannot. When WhatsApp rolled out end-to-end encryption as standard for over 1 billion users, it did more to protect privacy than any government regulation. Similarly, companies like Apple and Google have responded to public pressure by experimenting with products that claim to better protect their users’ privacy.

We need to make sure that we're using both the creativity and ingenuity of the market, while some basic guardrails are set by the state. Hopefully, there will be greater collaboration between the EU and the U.S. to establish regulations that protect users’ rights while promoting innovation.