In particular: Where are democracies using direct censorship the restriction of internet access, takedown requests, filters, blocking and the criminalisation of online speech?



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Freedom of expression in the digital world faces a number of challenges in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes. While democracies should be setting an example to authoritarian states in promoting and defending online freedom, many are threatening to introduce a range of filters, degrees of surveillance and criminalising online speech at the national level. Authoritarian states point to repressive policies in these democracies as justification for not reforming draconian laws, undermining foreign policy proclamations by democracies to promote digital freedom. However, other democracies have adopted laws to embolden online freedom and protect freedom of expression. If democracies want to push for fundamental rights abroad, how must they reduce online censorship at home?

This panel will explore:

1. Where are democracies using direct censorship - the restriction of internet access, takedown requests, filters, blocking and the criminalisation of online speech?

2. Where is the privatisation of censorship problematic in democracies?

3. How does online surveillance and spyware have the potential to chill free speech in democracies?

4. What parallels can be drawn between internet censorship in autocratic states (China, Iran) and democratic states?

5. How do internet restrictions in emerging democratic powers like Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa influence censorship in smaller neighbouring states?
In particular:

1. Where are democracies using direct censorship - the restriction of internet access, takedown requests, filters, blocking and the criminalisation of online speech?
There are a number of problematic trends within democracies that impact on free speech online including the use of takedown requests to censor content, the use of filters and blocking to restrict access to information and the criminalisation of online speech with disproportionate laws.

Takedown requests are growing across many democracies. India and Brazil are some of the worst offenders, but other democracies including France, Germany, the UK and the US are also requesting web companies to hand over more user data and to remove more content.


The criminalisation of free speech remains problematic across democracies. While Section 5 of the UK’s Public Order Act has been reformed so it no longer criminalises ‘insultingbehaviour or content; Section 127 of the Communications Act criminalises “grossly offensive” comments. The UK’s Communications Act is mirrored by India’s section 66a of the 2008 Information Technology Amendment Act, which makes it illegal to send ‘offensive messages’ that need only cause annoyance or inconvenience to be criminalised.
However, Brazil’s long-debated ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ has been portrayed as a positive legislative model for other countries to replicate. The draft Bill, called Marco Civil da Internet, aims to strengthen freedom of expression, net neutrality and user privacy online. Thousands of people shaped its current form through collaborative online consultations. What does this process mean for other democracies?

2. Where is the privatisation of censorship problematic in democracies?
Private companies are increasing acting as judge and jury over the takedown, blocking and filtering of content, a process known as the privatisation of censorship.

Measures to protect intellectual property across democracies, including proposed draconian legislation such as ACTA and PIPA, is driving forward the privatisation of censorship. The UK’s Digital Economy Act contains a number of provisions including the ability for the government to order internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites and suspend the accounts of customers accused of downloading copyrighted material by private companies. This will not be subject to judicial oversight. As yet, these provisions have not been enacted.
The implementation of filtering software on private networks restricts users’ access to information, but its use is unaccountable and it has been left on the whole to consumers and the markets to decide whether to opt in or out, regardless of the impact on free speech.
Meanwhile, major US corporations have an increasingly important role to play in the takedown of content, while they have user bases with populations larger than that of democratic nations, they don’t have democratic accountability. How can we ensure free speech is protected by these corporations?
3. How does online surveillance and spyware have the potential to chill free speech in democracies?

Online surveillance and the use of spyware isn’t restricted to authoritarian regimes.


The recent legalisation of warrantless wiretaps on foreign intelligence targets means the US government can now snoop on data from anywhere in the world if processed on US servers or hosted on US websites. Such overreaching policies and troubling national security acts negatively impact on digital freedom of expression in the US. India has also increased its use of state surveillance and German authorities have acquired the license for FinSpy, a type of spyware that can bypass anti-virus software and extract data from the targeted device.

However, the dropping of the UK’s draft Communications Data Bill is welcome. The Bill would have made the surveillance and storage of UK citizens’ communications data the norm allowing an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of British citizens that would chill free expression. No other democracy has gone as far as these proposals would have for widespread information-collection on the whole population.


The issues above will determine whether the contrast continues between democracies championing digital freedom when it comes to net governance (for instance at the WCIT), while not practising what they preach domestically or in their wider digital foreign policies.


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