The evolution of the internet from a forum for communication and commerce to a medium of free exchange of opinion and views has been so rapid that the nearly ubiquitous worldwide network of computers is now almost an extension of social life for many on the planet. It is therefore a discomfiting fact that despite the communitarian growth of the internet, the threats to freedom of expression on the medium, such as content takedowns, online surveillance and other forms of state control, have increased in the past year. A report on “Freedom on the Net”, released by Freedom House, the U.S.-based, government-funded organisation, points to the overall decline in internet freedom following a country-wise analysis of 65 nation-states. Freedom House’s reports in the past have been subjected to criticism for its perceived “bias” towards the U.S. and regimes friendly to it. But the “Freedom on the Net” report is fairly comprehensive in its categorisation of online freedom and curbs on it through different mechanisms adopted by nation-states.
The alarming conclusion of the report is that countries, irrespective of developed or developing status, are adopting more and more invasive means of censoring content, including techniques such as disruption of information networks and intrusive surveillance of the internet. These were self-evident from the revelations by the U.S. fugitive and whistleblower Edward Snowden, who pointed to the expansive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency. While the revelations raised awareness about the use of dragnet surveillance by the world’s leading powers, they have not resulted in substantive curbs on the practice. The U.S. recently passed a law that provided some limits on call-records monitoring and added some checks on wire-tapping and other means of surveillance, but did not go far enough to curb the dragnet surveillance by the NSA. This has worldwide implications as the domain naming system and root servers are still largely controlled by agencies of the U.S. government. Fourteen of the 65 countries surveyed by Freedom House have passed laws to expand surveillance on their own citizens. Beyond surveillance, other forms of content takedowns and artificial “firewalls” have also hampered freedom of expression on the internet, with China being an extreme example that imposes wide-ranging blocking based on keywords and specific sites. India too remains a “partly-free” country with respect to internet freedoms, and these could be chalked to the intermediary impositions and content takedowns ordered frequently by State governments. Reasonable restrictions on the internet are of course legitimate on a country-by-country basis as there are varying interpretations of liberties due to cultural and socio-economic factors. But the underlying mean needs to remain the reasonable expression of free speech on the internet. At least in the case of India, civil society has its task cut out to ensure that this is done both legislatively and juridically.