Current events

Freedom on the internet falls for the ninth year in a row with the rise in internet "blackouts"

  Foto: Michelle Ding / Unsplash

Foto: Michelle Ding / Unsplash

Beatriz Gonzlez
A wave of protests using the internet as support unleash higher levels of censorship

Movements against governments, laws, unsustainable economic situations and other sources of discontent are evident the planet over, unleashing a wave of protests that saw their initial spark on the internet. Chile, Iran, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Bolivia, Catalonia and dozens of other places worldwide have seen how movements went from a mobile or computer screen to the streets, translating into all kinds of demonstrations. Madrid alone saw an average of 10 protests a day in 2018 according to figures in the Spanish Ministry of the Interior's statistical yearbook, and it is predicted that the figure will be even higher when the 2019 data are analysed.

Social media and apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have helped with the organization of many of these movements: "social media have diversified and transformed the ways in which people participate in collective action", stated Antonio Calleja Lpez, expert sociologist in Technopolitics and researcher with the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the UOC. In this expert's opinion, internet platforms open up new forms of participation (the more superficial ones coined as clicktivism) which offer a way in and a gradual transition towards more complete forms, which range from cyberactivism to technopolitics, the tactical and strategic use of online networks for organization, communication and collective political action. To this effect, "the key for internet movements today is not so much the potential of online spaces and dynamics, but that of their hybridization with on-site ones", Calleja explained.

"We can look to the early 1990s, when mobile phones began to show the possibilities for coordinating protests", stated Silvia Martnez, director of the UOC's Master's Degree in Social Media: Management and Strategy. Before the birth of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, information and communication were already playing a key role in the development of social mobilizations. Martnez added that today, technology is a fundamental tool for activism, irrespective of whether this is political, social or economic in nature.

According to the experts, the Arab Spring is seen as the first movement to use social media as a tool to send its demands viral internationally. "It was a milestone in the digital society to see for the first time how two factors came together: firstly, the systematic control of the media by the governments of the countries involved, along with the appearance of Al Jazeera as a far-reaching medium not subject to censorship and wielding great power; and secondly, the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilize and to protest internationally, supported by images, as what makes the rounds on social media is primarily photos and videos of what's happening", pointed out Alexandre Lpez-Borrull, professor with the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences at the UOC, who added that in the success of the protests supported by the internet, the role of the "prosumer" citizen has been key. "The moment a person becomes a prosumer, which means that while they are consuming information they are also capable of generating it, they can become a media source themselves. This makes controlling information more difficult, which governments know and fear", he went on to say.


Control by internet blackout

According to Lpez-Borrull, this is the reason why after the Arab Springs there was a major attempt at censorship, first on the media, where it already existed, and then on social media. "But there's a third rung, which is the control of people's mobile phones and other devices by switching off the internet. It's a ladder: the bigger the crisis, the more the rungs the government climbs to reach the stage where it decides to switch off the internet as the last solution to control a certain social mobilization", he warned.

This refers to the so-called internet "blackouts" with which increasingly more countries in Asia and Africa, although not only these continents, seek to smother dissidents. According to the report by Access Now, an independent body that defends rights on the internet, the Indian government is at the head of the ranking of countries that use this practice, although it is not alone. In 2018 there were at least 196 blackouts in 25 countries, whereas two years earlier, there were 75 internet blackouts in 24 countries. In total, in the last four years, over a quarter of the countries in the world have used this tactic. The economies of the countries affected have paid dearly for it, losing up to 6.6 million dollars a day according to research conducted by Deloitte.


Increasingly more censorship

Consequently, the same technology that has provided an almost limitless range of possibilities for the organization and propagation of different social movements can also become a tool for censorship, while the wave of protests appears to have provoked censorship into becoming increasingly more evident worldwide. According to the latest Freedom on the Net report, a study conducted by Freedom House that analyses internet freedom in 65 countries all over the world, global internet freedom has decreased for the ninth year in a row. An example of this is that between June 2018 and May 2019, Freedom House found evidence of the existence of advanced surveillance programmes on social media in 40 of the 65 countries analysed.

Other examples are the steps taken by governments such as the Russian one, which passed a law in April strengthening internet censorship powers by means of a domestic net that can work autonomously and that allows the Russian authorities to filter external information to that net and block content it deems undesirable. Another example is what happened in Iran in November, when the 12 days of public demonstrations that had been silenced through massive internet blackouts made news headlines all over the world. As regards China, supervision of the internet is increasingly more intense, with the content considered to be "delicate" increasing year on year.

"Intervening in the internet in any of its layers is a repressive strategy with a political dimension; cutting the digital layer affects the forms of political expression", explained Antonio Calleja Lpez, who added that "there's no need to look to China, the Spanish government is also trying to obtain legal cover to do it". The drift from the so-called ley mordaza [gagging law] (which was a reaction to the potential of the interconnected crowds created during the indignados movement) to the more recent decretazo digital [digital super-decree] is "the story of an attack on social autonomy supported on the internet, on society's ability to organize and mobilize itself, using digital media, to change things", explained Calleja. According to the researcher, we need to observe governments with their eyes set on technological geopolitics and look at the role of large corporations like Google and Facebook, which have more power than any state in certain layers of the internet.

For her part, Professor Silvia Martnez recalled that in control actions on the internet and communications systems, it is "especially important to see the powers that the government has to intervene directly and the situations or circumstances in which these measures can be applied", and she referred to Royal Decree-Law 14/2019, of 31 October 2019, validated by the permanent deputation of the Congress of Deputies on 27 November, stating that "justifying an action using abstract terms such as 'public order' could translate into a wide-ranging power to take action".


Right to the internet as a basic human right

The consequences of this censorship affect different spheres, the experts explained. Alexandre Lpez-Borrull recalled that through its study committees, the United Nations stated in 2016 that the internet was a basic human right "because it is through the internet that society lives its life, so without internet access, a society is not able to develop. The internet is not only for buying concert tickets, which is why the right to the internet is included in the Sustainable Development Goals".

"Restricting the right to assembly and protest is harmful to a society: it not only treats its citizens coercively and without dignity, it also deprives a voice to those who defend opposing points of view. This prevents anyone from having to develop arguments to legitimize the political decisions that will affect society as a whole and which must be based on the voluntary consent of all citizens", agreed Albert Padr-Solanet Grau, professor with the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the UOC. The costs are not only moral, or of short-term repression: "the lack of reply can lead to a stagnation of society and a lack of adaptation to the changes that may lead to really traumatic situations in the future", stated the UOC professor, who added that governments justify intervention on the internet as a way of safeguarding the proper working of society.

"The current discourse in both the traditional media and in governments on the dangers caused by the internet to the cohesion and proper working of democracies is used as an excuse to justify tougher controls being placed on the internet", explained Padr-Solanet. This campaign appears to want to influence public opinion by alerting of a series of connected blights that are associated with the use and mass dissemination of the internet in our societies and that threaten their proper working. "First is 'fake news' and the manipulation of information, and then antisocial behaviour", according to the professor. "The internet is portrayed as a lawless city where any behaviour is possible and where anonymity leads to a complete breakdown of civility. All of this happens to some extent, but not completely; and the internet is probably the public sphere where, right now, people can debate and discuss with the greatest openness and freedom", explained Padr-Solanet.

According to Ernesto Pascual, professor with the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the UOC, to date, people have always looked for shortcuts to overcome these severe restrictions on the use of the internet and social media thanks to the potential of the internet being the ability to "provide new communicative spaces that allow people to develop a narrative and more heroic symbology, precisely because of that persecution. However, when collective action goes from the networks to the street, the problems become traditional: power and the use of force. We are seeing it in countries such as Iran, Burma and China, but also in Hong Kong and Catalonia".


Antonio Calleja Lpez

Expert sociologist in Technopolitics and researcher with the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the UOC

Expert in: Technopolitics

Knowledge area:

Ernesto Pascual

Professor with the Faculty of Law and Political Science

Expert in: Law and Political Science

Knowledge area:

Photograph of Silvia Martnez Martnez

Silvia Martnez Martnez

Lecturer in the the Information and Communication Sciences Department
Coordinator of the Information and Communication Sciences Department's postgraduate programme

Expert in: Journalism and digital communication; specialized information; social networks; user consumption, usage and participation.

Knowledge area: Communication and journalism.

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Photograph of Alexandre Lpez-Borrull

Alexandre Lpez-Borrull

Expert in: Open science, open access, scientific communication, scientific research journals, legal aspects relating to digital information

Knowledge area: Information and documentation.

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Photograph of Albert Padr-Solanet Grau

Albert Padr-Solanet Grau

Expert in: Public management and administration.

Knowledge area: Public management and administration.

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