The Internet is no longer the domain where all Netizens can roam freely without fear, nor is social media beyond the pale of controls that have already collared traditiol media. As they are wont to do, governments around the world are playing Big Brother and making deep inroads into social media networks. According to the latest report by Washington-based Freedom House covering the period June 2016 to May 2017, the governments of 30 countries used “some form of manipulation to distort online information”. This is up from 23 countries in the preceding year, while this trend of declining internet freedom has been noticeable over last seven years. The report titled ‘Freedom of the Net 2017’ covered 87 percent of global internet users spread across 65 countries. And how are governments going about their controlling ways? “Paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets were among the techniques used by leaders to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves,” notes the report. Freedom House president Michael Abramovitch warns that while Chi and Russia first began using paid commentators and ‘bots’ (internet robots) for dissemiting government propaganda, these practices have now gone global, with “potentially devastating effects on democracy and civic activism”. In nearly half (32) of the 65 countries surveyed, the report noted deterioration, the worst in Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey. So governments, as sovereign and ultimate practitioners of power, are taking to social media in big way to mould public opinion and keep a sharp eye on dissenters. Not surprisingly, Chi once again tops the list (for the third year running) as the worst abuser of internet freedom, with Syria and Ethiopia following in second and third rungs. In Mexico, the government has unleashed spyware on activists battling corruption and human rights abuses. Venezuela too has been found highly active in illegal surveillance and censorship of the Internet, creating blockades and launching digital attacks against media houses and non-profit entities fighting for various causes. The Philippines government has deployed a ‘keyboard army’ with members hired for 10 dollars a day to create the impression of widespread public support for President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drug traffickers.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoðan’s authoritarian regime is employing around 6,000 cyber warriors in social networks to take out government opponents. Some governments are even flexing muscles beyond their tiol borders to meddle elsewhere, like the Russian disinformation campaign to influence the American election last year in favour of candidate Dold Trump. At home, the Kremlin has tightened control over the Internet, with its latest regulation making it mandatory for bloggers who have 3,000 or more visits to their sites register with the Russian government. Meanwhile, the Chinese government, unfazed by criticism for its chokehold on the Internet, is actually seeking a meeting of minds on the issue with various countries on the floor of the United tions and other intertiol groupings. Beijing is arguing that just as the UN recognizes the principle of land and sea sovereignty, it should similarly recognize sovereignty in cyberspace — that cyberspace has become too important a territory to have no laws. This essentially means that each country ‘should be able to govern the Internet in the way it wants without interference from other governments’. In fact, the Chinese government has even brought out a report on the necessity of such an ‘intertiol partnership’ — that it is in the interests of governments to increase their power over cyberspace while reducing the influence of corporates, as well as to ensure security by taking on cyber terrorism and crime. As for India, different ruling dispensations are agreed on the need to tame the beast that is Internet. Back in 2011, after the An Hazare-led ‘India Against Corruption’ movement gained much traction through social media, the then UPA government became noticeably active at Geneva in pushing for a so-called ‘Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP)’, essentially a mechanism for government control of the Internet through the agency of United tions. This created widespread misgivings among votaries of a free and decentralized Internet, which is governed by the voluntary, multi-stakeholder ‘Internet Corporation for Assigned mes and Numbers (ICANN)’. Headquartered in California, the ICANN also has a Government Advisory Council (GAC), with scope for governmental participation. After 2014, with the NDA regime ensconced at the Centre, the government position was clearly spelt out in the Supreme Court that there is a need for tough laws like Section 66A of Information Technology Act, because in the Internet “there is individual approach with no checks and balances or license.” There have been reports of the Central government mulling the use of ‘web filters’ and instituting a comprehensive ‘Centralised Monitoring System (CMS)’ to prevent misuse of Internet for fomenting violence, spreading rumours and hatred or other illegal activities including cyber porn. However, with the Supreme Court in its landmark Aadhaar verdict striking down the Centre’s major argument that “India has no fundamental right to privacy”, it remains to be seen whether tiol security concerns would offer sufficient ground to shackle the Internet in India.