Internet freedom is on the decline. It has been ever since companies began centralizing control over where users congregate, and things have only gotten worse with ever increasing government intervention. Some might see said claims as alarmist and will say things aren’t “that bad,” citing dictatorships such as North Korea as examples of true restriction of internet freedom. But this comparison doesn’t do justice to the extent to which online freedom is being limited.
Truly, the enemy is among us, and it has been for quite some time. Self-interested organizations including big record companies, movie studios and even the government have been slowing chipping away at individual freedom as they fear losing control over the economy and the people.
Beyond that, government organizations continue to tighten their grip as internet freedom threatens the status quo. The real question we need to be asking, though, is this:
Are we past the point of no return?
The Patriot Act
In the West, specifically in the US, the first serious threat to digital freedom came with the passing of the Patriot Act following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Immediate action was taken to increase surveillance on American citizens, but the National Security Administration didn’t stop there.
Spying on emails, chats and forums, the organization set out under the auspices of government officials to locate and track anyone with a dissenting viewpoint, terrorist or otherwise. Doing so makes it a lot easier to accuse someone of having criminal intentions.
On the bright side, this data gathering also resulted in more information than can possibly be processed—ever. The result is somewhat optimistic, in that the government can’t hope to deal with each and every voice with which they don’t agree.
Censorship and Digital Rights
Areas of censorship and digital copyright laws bring together an unholy alliance far worse than exclusive government interest—we’re referring to combined corporate and government interest, not dissimilar from fascism.
This happens on two fronts. The first, mediated mostly by companies, is geo-blocking content by country. A good example is how copyrighted content on YouTube can’t be watched in the US, but it can be in other countries. This can be circumvented to some extent by clever use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN), but an ongoing battle between companies and consumers continues to be waged.
The other instance of censorship is mediated by governments. From shutting down “illegal” websites such as ThePirateBay to flat out preventing citizen access to parts of the internet, governments are using their muscle to limit freedom and are showing no signs of slowing down.
In fact, it seems more likely this activity is increasing, with more and more countries preventing external access on a selective basis. Countries infamous for this include China, Iran and North Korea, but don’t be fooled—even Western countries engage in some degree of IP blocking when it suits their agendas.
One look at WikiLeaks and it would seem that online freedom is alive and well. But, is that truly the case? From time to time, we hear major stories about leaks related to political scandals or even celebrities. Some of these change our opinions, while others get ignored.
What we can tell you is politicians are not ignoring announcements made on WikiLeaks. To this day, we still have “wanted” notices out for known leakers such as Edward Snowden threatening life imprisonment or worse (though it’s worth noting Snowden’s actions are considered treason).
Those that choose to ignore the warnings and examples made of previous leakers on WikiLeaks can expect similar treatment. And if sharing inconvenient information online can result in criminal charges, exactly how free are we to share? Anonymity isn’t guaranteed online by any means, no matter how extensive our efforts might be.
One place anonymity continues to erode is on social media. In an unprecedented shift from the older days of the net, nearly all users are encouraged to represent themselves online not as handles, avatars or screen names but as their real identities. A significant percentage of users have fallen in line with this new trend, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it stopping.
While you might argue that transparency online is a good thing, it doesn’t come without cost. Lack of anonymity means much more serious consequences for posting or sharing thoughts that go against common social mores or shared beliefs, no matter how flawed those beliefs may be.
This further erodes our freedoms online because it stifles dissenting voices that fear the backlash frequently associated with sharing different opinions. These fears aren’t baseless either; sharing unpopular views online can be political or career suicide if those ideas rattle the wrong cages.
On top of all these problems, social media giants such as Facebook are running new campaigns aimed at stopping “fake news,” which might help in some cases, but this ultimately serves as a move to quash opinions they don’t care to see online.
Danger! Point of No Return Ahead
For all the above points, the question still remains—is there any turning back? Can our online freedoms ever be truly secured and protected from outside intervention? By now you’ve most likely noticed there are plenty of factors and parties trying to ensure limitations to our freedoms.
But there is hope. While we may never return to the “wild west” of the internet, our combined vigilance can prevent things from getting considerably worse. By using our votes and dollars, we have the unique power to point things in a positive direction.
The cost, of course, is our time. If we collectively hope to maintain our online freedom, we can’t simply sit on the sideline and hope someone else will start a petition or write their government representative. You personally must do something. What that is will be up to you.
How will you make a difference?