We have seen increasing attempts by governments to suppress freedom of speech on the internet. TikTok has attracted the ire of US president Donald Trump, while Pakistan’s state-run regulator has hinted once again at blocking YouTube after prior tussles with the live-streaming app Bogo and the gaming platform PUBG. In 2021 we will see more governments threatening platforms for no other reason than they dislike their content.
According to Freedom House, which monitors civil liberties across the world, freedom of expression online continues to decline globally, with state surveillance, restricted internet access and a lack of effective resistance on the part of social-media companies cited as the major causes.
This trend is certain to continue. Co-operation between governments and social-media companies is likely to expand – but with even less transparency and independent oversight. Technology giants, such as Facebook and Google, in a bid to maintain their growing customer bases, will continue to establish community guidelines, privacy rules and data-collection mechanisms. These will be more in accordance with host countries’ laws, however, than with a view to addressing users’ legitimate concerns.
Governments will continue to attempt to regulate online spaces. This will often be portrayed as efforts to “contain” civil unrest, and, in the case of autocratic regimes, may lead to blocked social-media platforms and restricted internet access. We have already seen this happening in Belarus, Sudan, Bangladesh and Brazil, so expect others to follow suit in 2021.
Surveillance of citizens will also see an increase. In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments have used digital platforms to collect vast amounts of data to monitor and contain the spread of the disease. While this approach may be rationalised as a public-health imperative at present, it is likely that such scrutiny will continue long after the infection is brought under control.
Prohibiting access to information and denying freedom of expression go against the fundamental liberties of citizens. In 2021 we will have to acknowledge that the internet is not the free space it was originally envisaged to be. Online spaces are a fundamental part of our modern ecosystem, but we will need to discover ways to govern them more effectively, preserving freedom of expression and protecting the privacy and security of their users.
One way to achieve this will be to model good self-governance. Oversight boards – such as that set up by Facebook, of which I am a member – have a responsibility to hold their organisations accountable, and they will find themselves motivated to raise the ethical bar for competitors.
But consumers will make their opinions known too, gravitating away from the big players towards services, such as Signal, which they will see as a safer haven for their data.
In 2021, measures will be taken by individuals and countries that go directly against the core values of the internet, and these will increase in frequency and force. Only by establishing good governance and, if necessary, voting with our feet, will we be able to preserve this key part of our democratic life.
Updated 13.01.21, 15:13 GMT: This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference that stated ByteDance owned PUBG.
Nighat Dad is a lawyer and internet activist who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation