The internet is, without a doubt, one of the most groundbreaking technological innovations of 20th century: an invention that follows the international trend of globalization and political uniformization, and a bottomless well of information that is reminiscent to the Library of Alexandria. The concepts of a virtual world and virtual identity have become popular in contemporary times, and the fact that we use the internet to communicate, interact with other people and download data is already a part of our daily routine. Moreover, the social media thins out the line between our real day-to-day life and our virtual alter-ego, thus mirroring human ideas, thoughts and concerns. Such a power will inevitably lead to a situation in which the users interact for social and political reasons, like in the case of the Arab Spring – where political regimes fell thanks to the ease of communication and freedom of expression that is provided by the internet.

Other examples where social media has influenced social movements include the 2013 protests from Turkey (that eventually led to governmental restrictions), the 2011 “Occupy Wall Street” Movement from the United States of America, the 2011 protests against the alleged rigged parliamentary elections from Russia, the 2013 Roșia Montană protests from Romania, and the 2012 Shifhang protest from China. The consequences of these digitally-promoted and social media-fueled protests vary from the ideal situation when a decision that encapsulates the protesters’ views and the government’s will is made, to the scenarios where measures are taken against the protesting citizens via more-or-less abusive legitimate use of force.

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What these examples have in common is the right to use the ever-growing global inter-connected network, the internet. And without a virtual space that, regardless its metaphysical nature, is free and allows the users to send and receive information without boundaries, no such social and political movements would be possible. And with the existence of legislative frameworks enabling both governments and internet companies to identify, surveil, and block certain activities of the users, the equation becomes more complicated.

As if it wasn’t enough, both companies and governmental agencies can store information about the users and the content they access: for example, Google will provide free e-mail services but use the individual’s personal data for commercial purposes and irreversibly block the access of certain users for infringing a certain Privacy Policy or End User Agreement, whilst Governments may block websites (as in the Chinese case), apply financial or personal freedom-endangering punishments (as in the Russian case), block all the copyright infringing material and apply fines (as in the German case), or collect data about every user for national security purposes (as made famous by the Edward Snowden leaks on the United States of America’s National Security Agency – the situation is applicable in many states around the world).

 

In a nutshell, if a social media company wants to delete a protest page that infringes its terms and policies it may, whilst also storing all the information about the activity. Governments may also have collaboration protocols with the internet and communication companies, to the extent in which the polity’s agenda is fulfilled. None of the above-mentioned social movements would have been so widespread without the aid of the internet media, and without a framework that allows for ideas to flow freely from a peer to the other, their impact would severely be compromised.

 

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Thus, an essential element in the process is the internet privacy – which shall be defined as a freedom of expression that suffers no third-party interference in terms of content, and can maintain a certain extent of secrecy and anonymity (just like in the case of sending a letter to a friend). This principle is rooted in the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, as Article 12 states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”. However, there is no international law to regulate internet access and limits to interference of third parties (companies or governments), yet there is a resolution of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council that presents a mirroring principle between the individual and the virtual avatar. Resolution L13 from 2012:

“1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; [and]

2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms; … . (20/L13… The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, supra.)”

Therefore, if there is a real-life right to privacy, then there has to exist one to protect the same information in the digital stratum. Furthermore, in order to strengthen the claim according to which there is an inter-linkage between privacy and freedom of expression, and to emphasize on how detrimental censorship can be, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank De La Rue, has written down an extensive report.

Whilst this theoretical framework on privacy and the efforts towards enforcing it as a component of international law can serve in the analysis of the individual cases, there is also a tool that presents how free the internet is: The Freedom House’s annual report, entitled “Freedom of the Net”, takes a look at 60 countries from 6 geographical regions and presents how the internet is blocked or censored. The states receive the “Free”, “Partially Free” or “Not Free” label according to 10 well-defined criteria that come in the form of governmental practices:

  1. Blocking/Filtering websites
  2. Cyber attacks against regime critics
  3. New laws and arrests for political, religious, or social speech online
  4. Paid governmental commentators who manipulate online discussions
  5. Physical attacks and murder
  6. Surveillance
  7. Takedown requests and forced deletion content
  8. Blanket blocking of social media and other ICT platforms
  9. Holding intermediaries liable (e.g. internet service providers, website hosts, moderators)
  10. Throttling or shutting down internet and mobile services

It should be noted that the report only regards the actions of the governments, and doesn’t take into account what the internet companies do – except for the cases in which the decisions were made by governments, and the companies were obliged to comply.

In the contemporary context there are many talks regarding how the internet should be regulated, so that governmental, corporate, and individual interests are secured, which leads to the so-called multi-stakeholder approach. Nevertheless, the treaties that emerged – the likes of ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA, did not manage to grasp on all the interests, and were usually dismissed by the end users themselves. Therefore, the question that one may ask is: Can political and commercial interests be put into practice while also securing the users’ privacy?

 

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Courtesy of xkcd.com

 

 

 

Sources:

1. http://mic.com/articles/10642/twitter-revolution-how-the-arab-spring-was-helped-by-social-media

2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22772352

3. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/07/us-russia-protests-socialmedia-idUSTRE7B60R720111207

4. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/07/us-russia-protests-socialmedia-idUSTRE7B60R720111207

5. Manuel Castells, “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 171-178

6. http://www.curierulnational.ro/Actualitate/2013-09-14/Proteste+in+mai+multe+orase+din+tara+fata+de+proiectul+ROSIA+MONTANA

7. http://spenation.com/politics-of-the-internet-the-hidden-costs-of-free-software/

8. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Available at: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a12

9. U.N. Human Rights Council: First Resolution on Internet Free Speech, available at: http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/servlet/lloc_news?disp3_l205403231_text

10.Internet Surveillance and Free Speech: the United Nations Makes the Connection, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/06/internet-and-surveillance-UN-makes-the-connection

11. Sanja Kelly, “Despite Pushback, Internet Freedom Deteriorates”, in Freedom of the Net 2013: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media (Freedom House: Washington, Columbia), p. 3-7

 

 

Image Sources:

1. http://images.pcworld.com/images/article/2011/09/twitter-5220250.jpg

2. http://xkcd.com/1269/

3. http://delimiter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/privacy.jpg

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