This blog note has also been published on CircleID in January 2020.
Digital Development and Freedom on the Net
On the 5th of November 2019, the release of the first of ITU’s Measuring Digital Development series coincided with Freedom House’s unveiling of its Freedom on Net 2019 report. This serendipity prompted me to write this blog note after carefully examining both reports.
On one hand, ITU’s analytical publication, with its new friendly format, emphasizes that Internet use continues to spread, warning however that the digital gender gap is widening. The estimated 4.1 billion people using the Internet in 2019 reflect a 5.3 per cent increase, confirming the trend of slowing global growth rates. More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity and 97 per cent of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal, reveals the report, offering interesting snapshots of other important ICT indicators. With its global and regional perspectives, ITU’s Facts and Figures 2019 also recalls that most of the offline population (46 per cent of the world population) lives in least developed countries, Europe and Africa having the highest and lowest Internet usage rates, respectively.
On the other hand, the Freedom on the Net 2019 focusing on ‘the Crisis of Social Media’ comments that the Internet, once a liberating technology, has opened new conduits for surveillance and electoral manipulation. Internet Freedom Declines outnumber gains for the ninth consecutive year with Ethiopia recording the largest gains in 2019 following the election of a new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, who loosened restrictions on the Internet and unblocked 260 websites. “Digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy and Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism” notes the report recalling that of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018. The future of Internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media, predicts the report offering series of recommendations to ‘fairly’ regulate a technology now pervasive in business, politics and personal lives.
The more we connect the World, the less free it becomes?
Time to pick the Good from the Bad and the Ugly
At the multilateral level, narratives advocating the Good of connecting the next 46 per cent to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals are necessary more than ever but no longer sufficient. Containing the Bad and Repressing the Ugly is more and more critically needed to ensure a higher aggregate contribution of the growth of the Internet to the interconnected goals of the 2030 Agenda.
It is time for multilateral and other actors to acknowledge that neither the utopian hopes and optimistic narratives, nor the dystopian fears and pessimistic discourses reflect the evolving and more complex uses of the Internet witnessed in our current era. The rise of Social Media Platforms and Frontier Technologies (Artificial Intelligence, Advanced Biometrics etcetera) are reportedly posing new challenges to human rights and to values that are enshrined in the United Nations organizations serving as guiding principles for international civil servants in all their actions. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on policy choices and actions made or not today.
New perspectives are needed from scholars, intergovernmental bodies, policy makers and technologists when pursuing their respective missions, seeking for a deeper understanding of nuanced issues beyond just technological advancements. This could be achieved through innovative forms of partnerships driving thinking and advocating practices so that digital advancements are informed, with evidence, by their holistic social and human impacts when addressing developmental challenges outlined in the 2030 Agenda.
Measuring Success of actions to connect the next billion (and the remaining 46 per cent of the world) could go beyond connectivity related quantitative assessments and consider the extent of which lives and freedom have improved with Digital Development.
Key findings of both reports are summarized below.
On the growth of Internet use :
- Internet usage keeps growing, but barriers lie ahead. Some 4.1 billion people are now online, but in developing countries women’s Internet use is falling behind. Affordability and lack of digital skills remain some of the key barriers.
- Most of the offline population lives in least developed countries. An estimated 3.6 billion people remain offline, with the majority of the unconnected living in the Least Developed Countries where an average of just two out of every ten people are online.
- The digital gender gap is growing fast in developing countries. More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity. Wide gender gap in mobile phone ownership often coupled with a wide gender gap in Internet use.
- Mobile-broadband subscriptions continue to grow strongly. ITU data show that 97 per cent of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal and 93 per cent within reach of a 3G (or higher) network.
- Almost the entire world population lives within reach of a mobile network. ITU data show that 97 per cent of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal and 93 per cent within reach of a 3G (or higher) network.
- Computers no longer needed to access the Internet at home
- Bandwidth growing fast, but with regional differences
- Lack of ICT skills a barrier to effective Internet use
- Broadband still expensive in LDCs
On the decline of Internet freedom
- Declines outnumber gains for the ninth consecutive year. Since June 2018, 33 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. The biggest score declines took place in Sudan and Kazakhstan, followed by Brazil, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe. Improvements were measured in 16 countries, with Ethiopia recording the largest gains.
- Internet freedom declines in the United States. US law enforcement and immigration agencies increasingly monitored social media and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices, with little oversight or transparency.
- China is the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Censorship reached unprecedented extremes in China as the government enhanced its information controls ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of persistent anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
- Digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy. Domestic state and partisan actors used propaganda and disinformation to distort the online landscape during elections in at least 24 countries over the past year, making it by far the most popular tactic for digital election interference.
- Governments harness big data for social media surveillance. In at least 40 out of 65 countries, authorities have instituted advanced social media monitoring programs. These sophisticated mass surveillance systems can quickly map users’ relationships; assign a meaning to their social media posts; and infer their past, present, or future locations.
- Free expression is under assault. A record high of 47 out of 65 countries featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech. Individuals endured physical violence in retribution for their online activities in at least 31 countries.
- Authorities normalize blanket shutdowns as a policy tool. Social media and communication applications were blocked in at least 20 countries, and telecommunications networks were suspended in 17 countries.
- More governments enlist bots and fake accounts to manipulate social media. Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents in 38 of the 65 countries covered in this report—another new high.
The two reports can be downloaded here:
- Facts and figures 2019 – Measuring digital development
- Freedom on the Net 2019 – The Crisis of Social Media
Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed in this personal blog entry are solely those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the official position of ITU and the academic institutions he is affiliated with.
Kitaw Yayehyirad KITAW (Yayeh KITAW) works in Geneva for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). He holds an MBA in Management of Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and is currently a part time PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Maastricht – UNU-MERIT.