Anti-terror efforts clash with internet as a 'human right'

Recent activities to censor or switch off internet access demonstrate that issues surrounding free speech are never clear-cut

Anti-terror efforts clash with internet as a 'human right'
Credit: Newtown Grafitti

The fight for an open internet took one step forward and two steps back this week. As the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning any country that disrupts or censors the internet, Turkey violated the rights championed by the resolution and the European Parliament moved forward with a law that would block terrorist content online.

The UN resolution, which was opposed by China, Russia, and North Korea, stressed that open internet access is a human right. "The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online." Restricting internet activity, it said, was a human rights violation -- in particular, the right to free speech.

They're lofty ideals, but free speech has always been a complicated issue. Toss together a global bullhorn like the internet with the battle against terrorism, and the debate becomes even thornier.

Turkey played a key role in forming the resolution -- which especially called on countries to refrain from shutting down the internet during elections or terror attacks -- but it was quick to fail its first real-world test. Mere days after the vote, it restricted its citizens' access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the wake of an attack at the airport in Istanbul.

European countries that had supported the resolution also saw no irony when drafting a law aimed at trying to "close websites [used by terrorists], and if this is not possible to block these internet websites," according to chief negotiator, German MEP Monika Hohlmeier.

Cue shades of Donald Trump advocating to shut down the internet.

While countries like China and Iran have long kept tight control over online activity, an increasing number of countries are using internet shutdowns as a method of controlling citizens. There were 15 internet shutdowns around the world in 2015, and at least 21 instances have been recorded so far this year, according to digital rights group Access Now. In more than 25 countries, laws could be interpreted in a way that allows governments to shut down the internet or take over telecom networks, said Peter Micek, Access Now's global policy and legal counsel.

Human rights and internet activists also warn that many more democratic governments are using shutdowns to stifle free speech under the guise of fighting terrorism. "It's becoming the go-to mechanism for governments trying to control the flow of information," said Micek. "It is still the Wild West in terms of what's acceptable behavior and what violates human rights online."

Actions like the draft EU law go too far in the name of trying to keep the web free from terrorist propaganda, civil rights advocates say. Hohlmeier, for instance, raised the possibility of monitoring internet users' search terms -- although that language was not included in the draft, to the relief of digital rights activists.

The temptation to clamp down on freedoms in the face of terrorist activity is great. But last month the U.S. military repudiated Trump's call to switch off the internet in order to combat ISIL, stating, "We also have to respect the privileges and rights of citizens to have access in the internet as a whole and as a country." 

Widespread internet shutdowns are not justifiable, even in times of conflict, Access Now says. "We've seen that internet shutdowns are early warning mechanisms for human rights violations.... [They] are a blunt-force instrument ... and a means never justified by their ends."

Combating terrorism needn't require giving up our human rights. Free speech has always had an uneasy coexistence with hate speech offline, but survived nonetheless. Now it's time to defend those rights online.

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