Freedom House recently released a report – Freedom on the Net; Rise of Digital Authoritarianism. The report discussing several key aspects of internet freedom, also focuses on the tyranny of digital giants is crippling democracies around the world. The report mainly focuses on how the Chinese propaganda on internet laws and internet freedom could lead the world into a technological dystopia and on the unconstrained spreading of “fake news” all over social media platforms and finally the report also mentions the various steps to be taken by policymakers and private sectors to maintain online liberty of the people.
The report reveals that over the last 12 months, how false rumors and hateful propaganda were spread online in South Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh & Myanmar which led to violent outbreaks against ethnic and religious minorities and how the anti-democratic forces in the government actively supported such incidents through content manipulation.
The Shutting Down of Internet Access:
India leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns, with over 100 reported incidents in 2018 alone. The incident in Tamil Nadu where a video showing a child being kidnapped by masked men on a motorcycle went viral, people thronged the streets and physically assaulted many several men and even killed two people who were mistaken for the kidnappers serves as a prime example of how fake news and media manipulation incites violence.
The report maintains that repressive Governments tend to use false news and hate speech as an excuse to curb independent reporting and how the Government responds severely to lies on social media by cutting off internet access altogether. Authorities in India and Sri Lanka temporarily shut down mobile networks or blocked social media apps during riots and protests, claiming that the measures were necessary to halt the flow of disinformation and incitement to violence.
Shutting down of internet access during the times of crises is a very poor way to deal with the situation. Because that’s when people need it the most; be it to dismiss rumors, check in with family, avoid dangerous areas or to be filled in what’s going on at the moment. Denying internet access in such situations hampers with some of the very fundamental notions on which the internet was developed for; to help people in need. Instead, the government needs to work on more effective policy making to counter online manipulation without imposing restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information.
At Least it’s encouraging to see that the Indian government is taking steps towards data localization with the 2018 draft data protection framework which mandates that personal data be locally stored. Since sharing and reckless misuse of personal data is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s world.