Wednesday, 15 April 2015 00:00

Internet Freedom in Europe: Between Risks and Responsibilities

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Photo: Rosaura Ochoa (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

The double-sided nature of Twitter and social media in general 


It takes few seconds. 140 characters or a post on Facebook and we can share our ideas and go viral. But are we really aware of the consequences a single and easy gesture like pushing the button "tweet" or "publish" can have? Are we free to speak our mind online without worrying we are using a device or a type of connection which might get us in trouble? E&M author Petya Yankova interviewed Sanja Kelly, project director of an initiative called Freedom on the Net, about the findings of their latest report on freedom of expression online. What are the latest debates centred on and what is the response of young people in Europe to getting their rights infringed?

Meeting Belarusians for the first time, foreigners might not understand why every time someone makes a joke, they would put their wrists in front of their lips to whisper "Lukashenko". It’s an elusive reference for the commonly spread knowledge of governmental surveillance within the country. The name of the Belarusian president has become a synonym for the Big Brother, always watching from the shadows. Is there another country in Europe which recognises and still makes fun of repressions and privacy violations? Even the gesture-loving Italians do not have a hand movement for giving away your privacy involuntarily.

Belarus in only one of the countries where freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and other human rights are under threat. Violations of these fundamental rights invariably extend online but Ukraine's northern neighbour is far from being the only country in Europe where websites are banned, political content blocked and user rights blatantly disregarded.

In a recent visit to the Netherlands, Sanja Kelly, project director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net initiative, delivered a public talk at the International Institute for Social Studies in the Hague. The event was organised by the prominent platform Society for International Development and shed light on a theme which concerns all of us: how safe are we online. Miss Kelly represented Freedom House, an American think tank which researches freedom restrictions in various contexts worldwide. While the organisation is mostly known for its annual democratic freedoms assessment and the Freedom of the Press index, it recently began examining rights and liberties on the web. This last evaluation, titled Freedon on the Net, was the subject of Miss Kelly’s talk.

Freedom on the Net evaluates 65 countries all over the world where information was collected, including Iceland, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine. The report identifies worrying global trends such as a rise in harassment of women and LGBTI individuals online and legislation penalising critical speech online, while simultaneously expanding government surveillance powers. The threat to net neutrality, the concept of not discriminating between users based on content, type of equipment, mode of communication and other variables is another much debated issue which the assessment zooms in on. "Internet freedom is in decline in recent years", was the conclusion reached by the analysis.

By giving young people a voice and an audience, the internet, and social media in particular, have led to an increased activism among the youth. At the same time, with this new power came responsibilities, as well as risks

Sanja Kelly

I spoke with Miss Kelly (in the picture) to find out more about the impact restricting internet freedom has on Europe and especially on young people living here.

P.Y.: The Freedom on the Net report mentions young people in many countries all over the world get imprisoned or suffer other forms of punishment for their actions on-line. Is that an age-related trend? What factors could be contributing to this targeting of people in their twenties and thirties?

S.K.: Young people are the most likely to use the internet, and yet often the least aware of the legal and social consequences of their actions. Throughout history, young people and students have played a strong role in breaking social barriers and organising protest movements. By giving young people a voice and an audience, the internet, and social media in particular, have led to an increased activism among the youth. At the same time, with this new power came responsibilities, as well as risks.

In Turkey, for example, the role of young Twitter users in rallying protests, documenting police abuse, and disseminating information that is damaging to the government has made them targets for unfair repression. Turks as young as 13 years old have been summoned to the police station for insulting the president on Twitter. Many others have had their houses raided for their tweets, a fact that will have a chilling effect on their freedom of speech moving forward. In countries like Ethiopia, students were arrested for merely writing about corruption at their university.

P.Y.: How does the internet freedom index affect young people in Europe in comparison to their counterparts in other regions?

S.K.: In a democratic climate such as Europe, the threats to internet freedom are not as grave as in authoritarian countries around the world—in other words, the European youth rarely has to wonder whether they will be arrested if they post something political online. That said, our study points out many pressing issues for the European youth to ensure that their freedoms are not weakened. Privacy is of big concern, particularly for those growing up in today’s digital age, as much of their personal lives being documented online. Young Europeans will need to ensure that their personal data is protected in a way that does not inadvertently infringe on free speech. Additionally, for many young people, issues surrounding downloading of copy-right protected movies and music are very relevant.

The present discussions around net neutrality will also have major repercussions for the way that young people use the internet in the future, not to mention their economic opportunities moving forward. It’s important that we establish the sort of free and fair regulations that will promote entrepreneurship and growth in Europe’s digital economy that will lead to jobs for young people.

You can find the map from the report in pdf form at the bottom of the article. 

The report identifies worrying global trends such as a rise in harassment of women and LGBTI individuals online and legislation penalizing critical speech online, while simultaneously expanding government surveillance powers

P.Y.: It is interesting that countries such as Ukraine, Hungary and Belarus are evaluated in the index. How come there was information available for these countries, while no data coming from Scandinavia or Spain, for example?

S.K.: In an ideal world we would produce data on every country, but unfortunately our resources are limited. The countries of the index were chosen in an effort to cover where the majority of internet users are based around the world, while also presenting a diverse range of democratic and authoritarian contexts. By studying countries that perform well on our index, our research can identify best practices to be replicated, while the countries that we identity as "partly free" or "not free" bring out many of the negative trends and emerging risks that policy makers, business leaders, and civil society must watch out for.

P.Y.: What are some striking examples and/or unexpected results from Europe which fed into the research for the 2014 Freedom on the Net index?

S.K.: It is striking to see a small country such as Estonia outperform the likes of Germany and France when it comes to internet freedom. Estonia has one of the most advanced systems in the world for protecting its citizens’ data. Not only do Estonians enjoy access to a wide variety of public services online, but the government is so transparent about what it does with personal data that citizens receive a notification when law enforcement agencies access information about them as part of an investigation.

It was also interesting to see that, after the initial outrage over [Edward] Snowden’s revelations, many European countries have granted similar powers to their own intelligence agencies. In the UK, the powers of the security bodies have not been significantly curtailed, while in France, numerous government agencies now have access to citizens’ online communications without a court order. The recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen will likely increase surveillance in Europe, as governments boost security at the risk of privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.

On the European level, the decisions to support the right to be forgotten and the striking down of the data retention directive were two major events that colored the 2014 study. Interestingly enough, we are now seeing these issues play out on the national level, which may have repercussions for many European countries’ scores for our 2015 report.


Photo: g4ll4is (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the major problems for young Europeans is how to keep the data they share online safe and private


The European Dimension

Data coming from reports such as Freedom on the Net proves the need for campaigns such as the European No Hate Speech Movement,  which recognises the importance of free expression online without diminishing human dignity or violating the fundamental human rights of another user. The No Hate Speech Movement of the Council of Europe has gathered the support of several thousand people on social media since 2012 when it started and has drawn attention to the tremendous impact internet interaction, in all its modulations, can have on an individual. Many of the worrying trends identified by the Freedom on the Net analysis were mirrored by user experiences as collected on the website of the movement.

Freedom of expression online is a topic which is not going away from the European agenda any time soon. This month the Dutch city of the Hague hosts the Global Conference on Cyber Space, where policy makers and civil society will attempt to reconcile issues of freedom, security and economic growth online. What impact this will have on young people in Europe is yet to be seen.


Photo courtesy of No Hate Speech Movement

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 April 2015 09:10
Petya Yankova

Petya Yankova is an English Literature graduate and passionate traveller. Besides being a regular contributor to E&M, books, plane/train tickets and foreign languages are her thing.

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