The Folly of Internet Freedom: The Mistake of Talking About the Internet as a Human Right
In the past two years, protesters against authoritarian regimes have begun to heavily use social-networking and media services, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and cell phones, to organize, plan events, propagandize, and spread information outside the channels censored by their national governments. Those governments, grappling with this new threat to their holds on power, have responded by trying to unplug cyberspace.
Some examples: In April 2009, angry young Moldovans stormed government and Communist Party offices protesting what they suspected was a rigged election; authorities discontinued Internet service in the capital. In Iran, the regime cracked down on protesters objecting to fraudulent election outcomes in June 2009 by denying domestic access to servers and links, and by slowing down Internet service generally — although protesters and their supporters found ways around those restrictions. In Tunisia, when protests against President Zine el Abidine ben Ali escalated in December 2010, his government sought to deny Twitter services in the country and hacked the Facebook accounts of some Tunisian users in order to acquire their passwords. In Egypt, amid mass protests in Cairo and several other cities in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s government attempted to disconnect the Internet. But there, too, protesters found limited workarounds until the doomed regime eventually restored some services.
Authoritarians may have reason to fear cyberspace. It is widely believed that the proliferation of Internet access and other communications technologies empowers individuals and promotes democracy and the spread of liberty, usually at the expense of centralized authority. As Walter Wriston optimistically put it in his 1992 book The Twilight of Sovereignty: “As information technology brings the news of how others live and work, the pressures on any repressive government for freedom and human rights will soon grow intolerable because the world spotlight will be turned on abuses and citizens will demand their freedoms.”
Two decades later, the hope that cyberspace will promote international peace and cooperation shines brighter than ever. To this end, the Obama administration has undertaken a project to promote its vision of cyberspace around the world. It was launched with the 2009 announcement in Morocco of the “Civil Society 2.0 Initiative,” a collection of efforts to help grassroots organizations use cyberspace to advance their goals. As the president explained at a 2009 forum in Shanghai, responding to a question about Internet censorship, “The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together.”