‘Internet Freedom: a security issue?’

By William Fuller

In 2014, it was reported that over three billion, or around 40% of the world’s population, were connected to the Internet (Seidler, 2014). This statistic indicates the extent to which the Internet has now pervaded into the lives of many. Throughout its rapid development, the Internet has undoubtedly exceeded many people’s expectations, as Secretary of State Clinton uttered in her speech on Internet Freedom in 2010, “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet” (U.S. Department of State, 2010). As such, the development of the Internet has provoked widespread debates concerning the freedoms that some Internet users’ argue should be present on the Web. With the UN recently declaring Internet access a universal human right, Internet Freedom has become a political medium, by which policy-makers and academics alike seek to adopt when attempting to formulate a normative understanding of how the Internet is incorporated into social, commercial and political circles (Kravets, 2011). For the purposes of this paper, Internet Freedom will be defined in accordance with the United Nations Human Rights Council, which generally defines Internet Freedom as the right to access the Internet and the right to privacy whilst doing so (La Rue, 2011). Certainly, given its contemporary nature, Internet Freedom has not yet been given a set definition; as such this underpins the contentiousness of the subject area. Furthermore, the complexity of understanding Internet Freedom was yet gain brought to the surface when, in 2013, the US Prism project was revealed by Edward Snowden (BBC, 2014). As a result, Internet Freedom has now become an urgent domestic and foreign policy issue, as policymakers and academics seek to understand the political principles, such as transparency, accountability and legitimacy, in order to understand the governance of information in both democratic and non-democratic states. Without a doubt, policymakers now face a real challenge of promoting the freedoms that Internet users’ demand, whilst seeking to maintain the level of security that the Internet requires in the 21st century.

This paper seeks to address the security versus freedom on the Internet issue in more detail, in other words, how valid are the concerns of some states that Internet Freedom is a security issue? In answer to this question, this paper attempts to depict three key Internet Freedom security issues, these being: freedom of expression, the right to privacy and the complexities of incorporating Internet Freedom within Foreign Policy agenda. Ultimately, this paper evaluates the validity of these concerns, underpinning the main contention of this paper, that being: Internet Freedom has, in the 21st century, emerged as a security issue for certain states, due to the limitations Internet Freedom imposes on states attempts to govern the Internet, and more significantly, the infringement that Internet Freedom inflicts on states’ cyber security programs.

Security versus the Freedom of Expression on the Internet

The freedom of expression on the Internet has become a major security concern for selective states. As such, governments now concern themselves with the dangers of information being twisted idiosyncratically and then spread around the Web, potentially leading to mass dissent elsewhere in the world. This was exemplified in the Arab Spring protests in 2010. At the same time as the Arab uprisings, elsewhere many people in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal were protesting and mobilizing against austerity measures. It was later reported that the digital media and activism seen in the Arab uprisings were a facilitating factor in the austerity protests. However, it should be noted that it was not identified as the root cause of mobilization (Karatzogianni, 2013:17). Nonetheless, prior to the uprisings, certain states had already initiated sophisticated tactical strategies to block access to particular online content, arguably stifling Internet Freedom (Ross, 2010:10). It was reported by the Open Net Initiative that over forty countries had already implemented some form of Internet filtering prior to the emergence of the Arab uprisings in 2010 (Deibert, 2008:5). There is evidence to suggest that certain states have rightfully concerned themselves with the security issue regarding online protests, a form of freedom of expression online. Certainly, an uncontrolled Internet can be, as Downey puts it, “menacing as well as liberating” (Downey, 2010:3). This is exemplified in the case of China, who censored their Internet, but, in turn, have arguably forced ordinary citizens into establishing human-flesh searches to shine the spotlight on corrupt officials and even alleged criminals (Downey, 2010:8). On initial observation, it appears that the use of human-flesh searches has acted as a ‘safety valve’ in Chinese society, ultimately serving as a check and balance on the government. However, given the other uses of the human-flesh searches in China, it could be argued that the human-flesh searches have become a menacing tool too. For example, Internet users in China use the human-flesh searches to target and punish fellow citizens, who according to human-flesh users have allegedly committed wrongdoings. Ultimately, in the case of China, the human-flesh searches have to an extent, expressed the political will of those that use the search engine, and this is regarded as a good thing by Internet Freedom advocates. However, at the same time, Chinese citizens are taking the law into their own hands, and this so-called ‘justice’ is pervading into the realms of the physical world, clearly violating human rights.

Alleviating this concern

In terms of alleviating state security concerns regarding the freedom of expression online, it appears that there could be a number of potential solutions to counter this problem. One of the solutions would be to introduce the facilitation of monitoring and reporting strategies. For example, if the State Department cooperated with academics, corporate companies, and other nation-states, online protests that have been seen to violate security protocol, leading to mass dissent elsewhere, could be successfully controlled through the monitoring or even filtering of offensive/disturbing content. For example, the Centre for Democracy & Technology issued a report examining the potential responsibility and gatekeeping role that intermediaries could take on (Centre for Democracy & Technology, 2012:2). Certainly, the report offers food for thought, given that most online protests take place through social media platforms (Casciani, 2010), it could be argued that intermediaries should bear more responsibility in countering the potential security threats that emerge from an online protest. However, in order for this to happen, intermediaries would require some protection and reassurance from the State Department. Not only are there substantial costs involved in monitoring Internet users’ activities (Centre for Democracy & Technology, 2012: 9), there is a greater risk of intermediaries causing more harm than good with regard to freedom of expression online. For instance, intermediaries could hamper legitimate online expression with over blocking (Centre for Democracy & Technology, 2012:20). As such, it could be argued that the report overestimates the extent to which intermediaries could work alongside governments, arguably due to the report adopting a liberal approach. Nonetheless, overall, having outlined the freedom of expression as an Internet Freedom security issue, it appears that on further observation the security issue could be dampened with the introduction of responsible gatekeeping implemented by intermediaries, but only in accordance with governments.

Security versus the Right to Privacy on the Internet

The right to privacy on the Internet has become a major security concern for selective states. As such, governments now concern themselves with encryption, hegemony, and decisions about openness vs. security on the Web. Yet again, there is no set definition concerning the right to privacy online. As such, for the purposes of this paper, the right to privacy online will be defined as “the right to prevent the disclosure of personal information to others” (Westin, 1967 cited by Buchanan, Joinson, and Reips, 2007:157). Based on the interpretation of this definition, it can be argued that selective states have rightfully alerted themselves to the dangers of the right to privacy online. The validity of the right to privacy as a security concern is certainly justified by the US Prism program, details of which were leaked by Edward Snowden in 2010 (Bowcott, 2014). For instance, since the 9/11 attacks, it has been reported that US surveillance programs have aided in the prevention of over fifty potential terrorist events (Kelion, 2013). President Obama further justified the effectiveness of the Prism program by stating that, “you can’t have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience” (Kelion, 2013). Having said that, statistics specifically relating to the Prism program have yet to be released by the State Department, thus, it is difficult to solely attribute the successful prevention of terrorism to the Prism program alone. However, it can be argued that the Prism program does, in fact, have a measure of accountability, given that both Congress and the courts oversee its activities, ultimately reassuring the general public that the program is legitimate (Kleinman, 2013). With the ever-growing fear of terrorism and the emerging threat of cyber attacks, illustrated by the recent TalkTalk cyber attacks, security must take a priority, even if this pervades into the privacy of Internet users’ online space (Farrell, 2015). On the other hand, critics of the program have highlighted the extensive costs of operating the program, let alone the laws it violates concerning the privacy of Internet users’ online space. Certainly, security versus the right to privacy on the Internet is very much a ‘double-edged sword’ debate, perhaps, therefore, looking at alleviating the security concerns regarding the right to privacy online can offer some in-depth insight into this issue.

Alleviating this concern

In terms of alleviating the security concerns regarding the right to privacy online, it appears that those states operating surveillance programs need to re-evaluate their measures of transparency and accountability to further justify their priority of security over privacy. Nils Muižnieks, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe has issued a report that perhaps offers some more detailed insight into the road ahead for prioritising security over privacy. The report fundamentally outlines the need for states to adopt overarching legal frameworks within their own boundaries as well as within the international community (Bowcott, 2014). The report outlines that current justification, based upon the fear of terrorism, are not valid. As such, the report indicates that the terrorism justification can only be approved if, as Muižnieks puts it, the threats “are strictly necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim” (Bowcott, 2014). Nonetheless, having said that a 1978 law under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act does, in fact, authorize the electronic surveillance of individuals who are allegedly engaged in espionage or attacks against the US (Kelion, 2013). Therefore, it appears that on further observation an appropriate definition of what characterises a ‘legitimate aim’ needs to be established by policymakers and alike. Furthermore, the collaboration between states and tech companies needs to be fully transparent, as there are looming questions over their shared aims, that being if they do in fact share the same aims. Morozov, who outlines the extent to which US surveillance programs have since become a global trade, states that, “while Western policy-makers are sorting out their problems, Western firms are busy expanding worldwide” (Lagerkvist, Morozov, and Riegert, 2012:11). Certainly, this is a security concern within itself and further exemplified in Egypt in 2011 when protesters, after storming the secret police headquarters, found surveillance gear identical to surveillance gear developed by European technology firms (Valentino-DeVries et al., 2011). Certainly, government security agencies need to ensure that Western surveillance technology does not become a global trade, even if it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Ultimately, overall, a legal framework needs to be pursued by policymakers in order to justify and reassure Internet users of the accountable and legitimate use of surveillance programs as a foreign policy.

The Complexity of Security when Incorporating Internet Freedom within Foreign Policy Agenda

Having raised several concerns regarding Internet Freedom and security, it seems appropriate to review the overarching security implications that Internet Freedom imposes on foreign policy agenda. States such as the US have from the outset outlined their international responsibility for the promotion of human rights, through pursuing Internet Freedom as a foreign policy issue. This is exemplified in Clinton’s Newseum speech, in which she frames the issue of Internet Freedom as a universal human right, and promotes the idea that a free and open Internet is in the US strategic interest (U.S. Department of State, 2010). In her speech, Clinton highlights the critical role that communication networks played in the response to the Haiti earthquake, which reassures Internet Freedom advocates of the benefits of adopting Internet Freedom as a foreign policy. Nonetheless, there are two sides to every coin. Certainly, one scholar, Madeline Carr reminds us that Internet Freedom, as a foreign policy issue, can be understood through a realist lens as well as a liberal lens (Carr, 2013). Carr definitely pursues a strong contention and unpacks the contentious, perhaps less written about aspects regarding the power component to Internet Freedom as a foreign policy issue. For instance, Carr acknowledges the fact that governments often have mixed trade and aid agendas, which at times compete (Carr, 2013: 633). So, at what point do nation-states sacrifice their own foreign policy agendas for the normative ‘public good’? Well, as Fergus Hanson points out, it appears that the US are only willing to cooperate on their terms (Hanson, 2012). To an extent, this is quite evident in Clinton’s Newseum speech, in which she said, “countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation” (U.S. Department of State, 2010). Moreover, since Clinton delivered her Newseum speech, it has been revealed that many of the tools used to suppress online free speech around the world have in fact been manufactured in the United States (Nakashima, 2013). This has left many questioning the coherence of US Internet Freedom policy.

Alleviating this concern

It appears that alleviating this concern could prove to be somewhat of a challenge, and this can be arguably put down to the differing political approaches that are existent within the subject area. For instance, although Clinton’s Newseum speech underpins the core values of Liberalism that often impel Americans to spread their values universally, US foreign policy is often characterized by illiberal tactics. For example, the US regularly imposes restrictions on civil liberties in the name of national security. This supports Realist thinkers, who would argue that this exemplifies the power component behind pursuing Internet Freedom as a foreign policy issue. Indeed, Carr emulates this point by highlighting the institutional advantage that military blogging has had in terms of gaining public support for the war effort (Carr, 2013: 633). Therefore, perhaps it is more appropriate to review other international actors pursuing Internet Freedom as a foreign policy. The EU has recently developed the Digital Freedom Strategy. The Digital Freedom Strategy promotes technology and human rights as important avenues for democracy promotion (Marietje, 2012). Like the US, the EU is ready to respond to the increase of Internet censorship. However, there is a significant difference between US foreign policy agenda concerning Internet Freedom and the Digital Freedom Strategy adopted by the EU. To highlight just one difference, that being the strategic interest of the EU is somewhat different to the strategic interest of the US. For example, the EU seeks to incorporate a degree of transparency within their agenda. Ultimately, on further observation, it appears that transparency is key to alleviating the Internet Freedom versus security concern. This is something Marietje Schaake addresses in her report on the EU Digital Freedom Strategy; Schaake continually highlights the importance of maintaining transparency given the subject of discussion (Marietje, 2012). Moreover, given the community of values that the EU promotes, they cannot afford to have a hidden agenda. Ultimately, states pursuing Internet Freedom as a foreign policy now face a tough challenge of gaining legitimacy and accountability, as it appears that security is yet again taken priority, which ultimately is overshadowing the human rights agenda that is incorporated within the Internet Freedom framework.


The Internet has become a platform of expression, liberty and freedom. Nonetheless, these political principles, have, in turn, led to widespread debates concerning the vulnerabilities that these said principles impose as a security issue. As such, policymakers now face a real challenge of promoting the freedoms that Internet users’ demand, whilst seeking to maintain the level of security that the Internet requires in the 21st century. This paper has sought to evaluate the validity of three Internet Freedom security concerns, underpinning the main contention of this paper, that being that: Internet Freedom has, in the 21st century, emerged as a security issue for certain states, due to the limitations Internet Freedom imposes on states attempts to govern the Internet, and more significantly, the infringement that Internet Freedom inflicts on states’ cyber security programs. On further observation, it appears that the core alleviating factors are rooted within the political principles of transparency and accountability. Nonetheless, given the nature of the subject being security, it is vital that an appropriate balance is found. This balance can be attributed to political perspectives, in particular, the political perspective that policymakers wish to adopt. Certainly, given this, policymakers will fall into a particular thinking process, by which policymakers will either prioritise Internet Freedom or that of security.

To see more from William Fuller, see his social media links below:

Blog: https://in2politics.wordpress.com/
LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamgfuller


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