Our world is experiencing a steady decrease in freedom, whether we look at the rise of censorship and surveillance, or the rights of people worldwide, including the presence of a free press. The well-respected organization Freedom House, in fact, calculates that “113 countries have seen a net decline in freedom” since 2006. That should concern all of us. The UN only recognizes 195 countries. So 58% of them are going in the wrong direction.
When it comes to the internet, China calls its approach the Golden Shield. It blocks many thousands of websites and social media accounts and quickly removes anything the government or Communist Party perceives as a threat. Citizens of Iran who express dissent online can be jailed or exiled. Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Department instructs its media outlets what is acceptable to report on and what is not. The list goes on.
Governments in too many countries build fake websites to catch us, or jam satellite signals to prevent information from traveling over their borders. Journalists are often jailed and too often their lives are in danger.
The internet has given rise to an unprecedented freedom of speech in our world. But this level of freedom is exactly what autocrats fear.
Citizens of repressed countries have been flocking to message platforms in droves for the last few years. WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Telegram and other services where they can share content privately are now the most important and fastest-growing part of social media worldwide.
There are 1.5 billion users of WhatsApp and over one billion for WeChat. But what is driving this success is as much fear as innovation, and that should trouble us.
Autocrats are thrilled. They prefer we communicate inside new walled gardens, such as message platforms, where they can regain control of their citizens. We often view these platforms as safer, but if you use WeChat, security and privacy are basically nonexistent. The government of China gets full visibility. Some of us rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) for safe flow of information, but autocratic states can increasingly block VPNs. There is no safe haven, even though censorship, surveillance and repression are alive and well.
This is why I am concerned about Mark Zuckerberg’s long and much-discussed Facebook post in early March, in which he argues that privacy-based platforms are the future.
In a private message platform, a protest is unheard, because the number of people who can see anything you post is highly limited. Harassment is not seen. Hate can brew in ways we can not track. Yes, such systems may have real, even urgent value for some of us, but a unilateral shift towards more privacy should concern anyone who champions freedom.
I’ll bet that everyone reading this column cares deeply about the right to free speech, the ability to have fair elections, the sunlight that we need to expose inconsistencies in how we treat our fellow citizens and the right of people worldwide to protest in their home country.
We may agree, but what do we do?
The top five media platforms on earth are Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp and Google. How they choose to operate has a significant impact on the rights of citizens to conduct free speech, access new ideas and create opportunities that will improve their lives. They set the standard for media worldwide, whether we like it or not.
As a result, we need to improve our public/private partnerships, so that all of society can work as a team to protect freedom. We need to stop chastising social media companies for their role in the 2016 election or other elections and instead look forward, so we can start developing standards, together, on how to deal with bad actors.
Vaclav Havel once said that “when a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.” His truth rings louder today.
It’s time for our U.S. Congress to conduct hearings and engage in debate about how we support each other to pursue freedom. It’s time for us to pool talent from both the public and private sectors to advance technology solutions with more speed. It’s time for us to share data on bad actors so we can expose those who repress people around the globe. Governments that support freedom, as well as the companies that play a key role in maintaining it, must figure out how to rise above the rhetoric and get to work.
Mark Zuckerberg’s summary on privacy-based platforms is really an urgent call for action.
All humans are equal. Their rights are not. We owe it to our fellow citizens to ensure they can also live in a world where they can speak freely via the internet or protest a policy they dislike without fear of retribution.
The world is counting on us to have the courage to champion freedom. Right now we’re moving in the wrong direction.