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The long decline of online freedom

Sally Wentworth | Nov. 16, 2016
According to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. What’s going on?

This continued escalation of online restrictions is extremely unsettling. Indeed, the evolving practice by some governments of inducing all-out network shutdowns, often in the name of national security or public order, will have potentially irreversible and society-wide consequences.  

Freedom House’s latest report confirms that in 2015, governments in 15 countries temporarily shut down access to the entire internet or mobile phone networks. This includes shutting down the internet during “politically contentious” times to block citizens from disseminating information through social media. 

The economic implications of network shutdowns are equally destructive. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, network shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion U.S. annually. Key examples of countries that lost money include India ($968 million), Saudi Arabia ($465 million), Morocco ($320 million), Iraq ($209 million) and Brazil ($116 million). Additionally, separate analysis by Deloitte Consulting for the Global Network Initiative estimated shutdowns to cost $23.6 million for every 10 million citizens in highly connected countries and $6.6 million per every 10 million citizens in countries with lower access. 

The ramifications of these moves from a social and humanitarian perspective are equally alarming. This tactic eliminates one of the major components needed to get the next billion people connected: trust. The Internet Society believes trust plays a key role in whether those who don’t currently use the internet see its value and believe it can improve their lives. Without trust, the internet’s full potential simply cannot be realized and developed. 

Policymakers have a choice to make about which path to take in developing internet policies. One path leads to an open and trusted internet with all the social and economic benefits it brings. The other path leads to an increasingly closed off and fragmented network that fails to drive growth. One path to opportunity, the other to stagnation. 

This year’s, “Freedom on the Net” report underscores that, even in 2016, our global internet community still has a long way to go to ensure that billions of citizens have adequate and properly functioning access to this incredible platform. We hope this report will serve as a warning to policymakers and industry leaders. We must not take the promise of the internet for granted. The successes our world experiences each day from the internet — economic, social and political — depend on it. 


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