As propaganda, ‘fake news’ and other forms of disinformation become increasingly common from governments, individuals and powerful organisations across the world, it’s become harder than ever for the average person to discern facts from fiction.
According to a report by Freedom House, 2018 was the eighth consecutive year in which global internet freedom has declined. This is especially a concern on social media where anger, politics and rhetoric are difficult to avoid.
Worse still, personal privacy has been eroded in the digital age as authoritarian regimes censor theirpopulation and corporations harvest, buy and sell personal data.
In such an environment it is no surprise that many people feel that rights to privacy and freedom of expression, which democracy is built on, are eroding.
But what is the future for your rights? How at risk are they, and what can you do to protect them?
Digital Freedom Around The World
As much as social media has become a mouthpiece for minority voices in the last decade, international leaders are becoming familiar with the platforms, meaning that measures to curtail online communication are effective – and increasingly common – in the face of dissent.
Currently, China is the most notorious example of state control in the world, with the ‘Great Firewall of China’ blocking the country’s 800 million internet users from accessing foreign websites. In addition, other kinds of online activity, such as social media, are either banned or heavily monitored.
Facial recognition technology and the monitoring of online activity are being used to collect data, to identify anyone who may be considered a possible threat to the state.
In January 2019, a man from Guangdong was fined 1,000 yuan and given a warning for trying to connect to blocked international websites.
It is not just individuals who are compelled to comply. Netflix has been criticised for removing an episode from the comedy show The Patriot Act from its Saudi Arabian service, due to a monologue about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Despite accusations of supporting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on freedom of expression, Netflix said they were obliged to comply with local law.
Rather than remaining a tool for giving voice to revolutions like the Arab Spring in 2012, digital freedoms in 2018 continued to be restricted around the world.
In the face of violent protests against increases in fuel prices, the Zimbabwean government have blocked social media and threatened to shut down the internet entirely.
Despite international objections, Bangladesh passed the Digital Security Act in late 2018, which could see prison sentences of up to 14 years for anyone secretly recording government officials, potentially resulting in serious consequences for investigative journalism in the country.
Threats At Home: Cambridge Analytica & Social Media Concerns
One of the largest breaches of personal data freedom in recent years came when Cambridge Analytica was found to have illegally collected online data regarding up to 50 million Facebook users, providing Vote Leave with insight ahead of the Brexit referendum and aiding Trump’s ascension to the White House.
Incidents like this prove that it is not just personal privacy at stake when data is stolen or misused. The ability to influence people’s views unwittingly can have serious impacts on people’s freedoms of thought and opinion.
As companies and governments are able to use this data, it could also inform other decisions that could affect people’s credit, insurance, international travel and a multitude of other factors.
Under pressure from numerous international authorities, Facebook introduced new rules over political advertising in 2018. With major elections expected in 2019 in India, the European Union and possible Brexit votes in the UK, Facebook has also announced that the use and scope of these rules will be extended.
Measures that will be used include only allowing ads to be placed by advertisers based in the respective country, and electoral ads being collected in a searchable online library, adding transparency.
While these steps sound positive on paper, their effectiveness will only become clear once the votes have taken place.
Future Worries – European Union Bill
A different form of online control is likely to come into force in 2019 despite significant protest. The EU Copyright Directive proposal is intended to make media platforms liable for copyright infringement and ensure that rights holders are remunerated and piracy cracked down on.
However, the complications of rights ownership and the inefficiency of tools like YouTube’s Content ID could make things very difficult to manage effectively.
The two standout points in the bill which are raising the most concern are Act 11 and Act 13. The first would require platforms to pay before linking to content or articles, or a ‘link tax’. The second is a filter to check videos for copyrighted content.
Opposition to the plans believe this would move the internet away from being an open platform to a system that automatically surveils users.
A further Article, 12a, would prohibit anyone but the organiser posting content from sporting matches. While this is clearly an attempt to clamp down on illegal streaming, it is more likely to impact people at events sharing photos who would suddenly be operating in a grey area of the law.
Despite being an EU directive, the impact is likely to reach worldwide in a similar way to GDPR, significantly affecting content creation and delivery for users around the world.
What Can You Do About It?
It may feel like individual users are powerless against these threats to their digital freedom, but there are still measures that could be used to protect their privacy. The increased use of VPN services is an excellent example.
By masking your location and making your device appear to be connecting from somewhere else in the world, users can evade geo-restrictions and increase their anonymity online.
In addition, the extra layer of security can make your browsing activity more private, providing an encrypted tunnel for your data to travel through. While an ISP (Internet Service Provider) or other third parties could see that you are connected to a VPN, your actual activity would not be visible, allowing you to better protect personal activity.
This is an effective step to take in many countries, but it is advisable to use caution when visiting countries that prohibit the use of such tools.
Ultimately, the key to protecting your personal data and digital freedom is awareness. By using caution when giving out information online and making sure that you are mindful of local laws and the risk of targeted advertising, you will be able to stand against the erosion of your digital freedom.