Internet freedom is under pressure, but a loophole exists


With its growth in users and reach, the Internet is getting less free and more censored. This is a sad fact that can be witnessed in new legislations popping up around the globe meant to regulate and control the digital sphere. A recently published report illustrates the concerning state of Internet freedom in many countries, as reported by The Guardian. After 20 years of what in hindsight can be described as the “Wild West” of the digital world, leaders and governments have realized the threat that the Internet can pose to their power. Now they are trying hard to recreate the old order where citizens were predictable and easier to control.

For those who advocate democracy, equality, human rights and freedom, the Internet was a major achievement. Losing the Internet’s capabilities of collaboration, sharing information and organizing joint actions would be an equally major loss. Especially during a time when we see a comeback of the authoritarian and totalitarian leadership and a weakening of the principles of democracy.

But even though the prospects for Internet freedom are becoming less positive by the day, I think there is hope that we will not go back to the “dark ages”. One specific, constantly growing group of people could play a very important role in defending the Internet’s achievements as well as civil rights in general: people living outside their country of origin.

Technically, this group consists of different sub-groups, such as permanent immigrants, expatriates as well as remotely working “digital nomads” and freelancers. These groups might be very heterogeneous in many ways, but what they have in common are roots in another culture or country. In most cases, that comes with at least an informal and emotional connection to their country of origin, if not with an active engagement in political and social discussions. Those permanent or temporary emigrants might turn out to be an important and effective “offshore hub” to make sure that unwelcoming, dangerous restrictions of Internet freedom or civil rights in their native country will not stay unchallenged.

Here are two simple examples to illustrate my point: Turkey is a country where freedom of speech is rather limited, as indicated by rank 154 in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without borders. Controversial President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has over and over again made clear that his preferred way of dealing with criticism of his person or government policies is to quieten it down with force, for example by imprisoning critics and journalists (Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey “The World’s biggest prison for journalists) or blocking access to Twitter or YouTube. There is even an infamous law which makes it illegal to “insult Turkishness” (which includes insults against government institutions).

Turks expressing public criticism of the ruling party choosing the wrong words face penalties or other kind of trouble. But while the government can put a lot of pressure on dissidents living in Turkey, it can hardly control the actions of Turks abroad. And as more than 5 million Turkish migrants live scattered all around Europe and the world, a vast number of very vocal people with Turkish descent enjoy the freedom to be able to comment relatively unthreatened on the latest political news from Turkey, as can be regularly witnessed on Twitter (e.g. by searching for “Erdogan”).

This fact might be one of the main reasons for Erdogan’s aversion to Social Media: He can control the Turkish press, he can use fear to trigger self-censorship among the country’s citizen, he can eavesdrop on Internet users inside the country. But his hands are tied when it comes to Turkish emigrants venting their anger against his politics online, visible by users in Turkey.

Or lets take the example of Spain: Last week the country passed a controversial “anti-protest” law limiting the freedom to gather and protest. According to the German news site The European, the law even includes fines for people using Social Media to call for participation in protests. For people residing in Spain it might become risky to engage in activity that is aimed at initiating protests. But people with a Spanish passport living abroad probably would not need to worry as much (at least until they return to Spain). After the Euro crisis hit Spain, tens of thousands of Spanish left their country in search of a job abroad. A substantial number moved to Berlin for example. These people could, if necessary and if something would trigger their desire to engage in their home country’s public debate, organize protests online without the immediate risk of being fined, as long as their country of residence does not have similar laws.

For ages exile has been a way for enemies of states or leaders to influence domestic politics without being present. Now thanks to the Internet, regular people that have migrated for whatever reason can, if they choose so, contribute to important debates in their native country using their social networks, with a couple of clicks, without being present. That does not mean that they will, or that there is a guaranteed positive impact. But the important point is that they have the option, whereas their fellow countrymen might be prevented from it or face heavy sanctions if they do. This is a loophole in the system of national legislations which possibly will turn out to be pretty significant as more and more people relocate and move to other countries; because war or economic misery forces them to, because they seek better opportunities, or simply because they can.

I see only two ways for governments to close this loophole:  Either by creating a national Internet and blocking most foreign sites that could pose a perceived risk, as practiced by China or Iran, or by creating cross-national legislations about civil rights and freedom of speech. The latter is rather unlikely to happen on a wider scale, though. Different nation’s values, moral views and experiences are too different and hard to align in detail. Germany for sure won’t give up on its ban of Nazi propaganda due to its history, the UK probably won’t give up on its libel laws.

The option of isolated national networks that offer only limited or no access at all to the World Wide Web probably will be tried by a couple of more countries in the future, but is unlikely to catch on in stable, established democracies.

I might overstate the importance and effects of the phenomenon of having large foreign populations that can ensure the existence of a vocal online opposition in their home countries. But I think it is one of the hopes we can have in a time when civil rights, democratic values and freedom in general are under pressure.

I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

Graphic: Quartz/DHL Global Connectedness Index

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