This essay first appeared in the Internet Monitor project’s second annual report, Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World. The report, published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is a collection of roughly three dozen short contributions that highlight and discuss some of the most compelling events and trends in the digitally networked environment over the past year.
In surveying the global digital landscape, several starkly different realities are evident, each with its own set of priorities and problems. For much of the world’s population, simply getting online is the most pressing issue of the day. A major concern is that the lack of adequate Internet infrastructure represents a major impediment to cultivating the capacity to more fully participate in the 21st century global economy, and that the current digital divide constitutes an additional and persistent wedge between the fortunes of the developed and developing world. This gap extends beyond physical infrastructure; differences in both digital literacy and agency also pose obstacles to online engagement. Questions for the coming years include how well the combination of public and private investments in infrastructure, national broadband policies, technological advancement, and education can help to bridge this gap, and what the long-term costs will be for those countries that do not.
For netizens that reside in well-connected countries with restrictive online environments, the infringement on political and civic liberties is a persistent issue with direct and indirect implications on social and economic development. In addition to the acute human rights problems, a point of central concern is that these restrictions inhibit the development of civil society institutions and social capital that are essential building blocks for modern societies to flourish. Yet identifying the most likely paths toward greater liberalization of digital spaces in autocratic regimes remains elusive. The development and dissemination of tools that help users circumvent content filters, protect Internet resources from cyberattacks, and aid in maintaining anonymity online help to create an environment for the politically active in authoritarian regimes where they can more freely express and share ideas. It is less clear how this technologically driven and limited opening of Internet spaces contributes in the long term to the reform of policies and regulations to protect Internet openness.
A particular concern is that more countries will choose to take steps to further wall themselves off from the open Internet. A question for the coming year is whether Russia will enforce proposed data localization policies, and if they do, how international social media and technology companies will respond. There appears to be a real risk that Russia will create a domestically hosted Internet enclave similar to that found in China, which would allow the government, should it decide to do so, to bring restrictions on digital media even closer in line to the controls on broadcast and print media. A related question is how many other countries, if able to do so, would apply a Chinese-style censorship regime: dialing up and down controls on political speech while allowing Internet activity to thrive in other areas. Iran is an example of a country that has failed to create such an environment and instead has opted for crippling restrictions on Internet activity, although if ongoing attempts to add further controls are telling, has also failed to impose the political control it seeks.
In those countries that show greater respect for freedom of expression and civil liberties online, the regulatory fabric includes a mix of private ordering, formal legal obligations, and informal arrangements with companies and regulators, alongside surreptitious activity, much of which is illegal. There are several trends that bear watching.
There appears to be growing support for clearly and proactively delineating Internet rights. This trend got a large boost from Brazil when the legislature there passed the Marco Civil da Internet. It will be interesting to see how many other countries enact similar frameworks. Efforts to codify Internet rights are underway in Italy and France, and appear to be indicative of a larger trend informed by more than 70 different proposals for defining fundamental rights online.
The mechanisms and structures for coordinating Internet governance internationally may undergo significant changes in the coming year. Several forums are studying and discussing how to best forge global consensus on matters related to Internet governance and how the various multistakeholder and multi-lateral approaches can best contribute to global coordination.
Another complex and important set of questions are teed up for countries that are committed to protecting free speech but also seek to address incursions into privacy and lessen the harms to citizens through damaging online activity, such as defamation, harassment, misogyny, racism, threats of violence, and other malicious attacks. Just as the efforts to protect Internet rights may be contagious, the policies and mechanisms used to curtail speech will be copied and emulated. Strategies to enforce a right to be forgotten online are from one perspective well justified and from another perspective deeply flawed in their implementation. The search for and debate over alternative mechanisms to achieve similar results is underway and may influence the spread of such policies. A similar set of trade-offs will complicate any initiative to more aggressively police extremism online.
Another issue to watch in the coming months and years is the many efforts to encrypt personal communications. Many people are working on this issue with renewed vigor, and an increasing number of companies appear to view this issue as an important factor in their competitive standing. The willingness of companies to be more aggressive in building encryption into their services as a default option will have the biggest impact on the speed and reach of diffusion. The response by law enforcement agencies will also be interesting as they continue to take the argument that they been honing for many years — that unimpeded access to digital communication is essential for protecting the public from crime and terrorism — to political leaders and the general public.