Internet freedom is the next frontier of human rights. Free expression on the internet is under assault. Although technology and information have spread across the globe, there is a dangerous trend of governments limiting internet access. In 2019 Freedom House published a report documenting that law enforcement in 47 countries arrested people for posting political, social or religious speech online.
China is the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom according to the Freedom House report. “Censorship reached unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls in advance of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of widespread antigovernment protests in Hong Kong.” China also has access to user content and metadata, which it uses to identify and punish those who share content it doesn’t like. Example is cited of a case from Mar 2019 when a member of the Uyghur Muslim minority from Xinjiang was detained for three days because someone in his WeChat contacts list had “checked in” from Saudi Arabia.
Oppressed people around the world need access to digital tools to break through information censorship, connect with others, and get accurate and unbiased news that their governments do not want them to have.
In response to this growing crisis, Voices of Internet Freedom coalition, a collection of more than a dozen organizations and individuals, have come together to advocate for greater internet freedom around the world. Although members of the coalition have collaborated regularly on internet freedom issues for more than a decade, this launch represents the first time that the group has formalized its efforts. The launch recognizes the universal right to seek, receive and impart information – regardless of where you live – and is a central tenet of the belief that internet freedom is the next frontier of human rights.
“Internet freedom has the potential to bring profound change to closed societies around the world, where repressive regimes keep their people locked in a de facto digital information prison,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, one of the VIF founders. “As a group, VIF is dedicated to opening the internet to everyone, giving them the same freedom to learn, organize and thrive that we enjoy in open societies. By forming this coalition, we hope to have the ability to speak with an even more powerful voice on behalf of internet freedom worldwide.”
Members of VIF come from a variety of backgrounds, including human rights organizations, religious freedom advocates, legal professionals, technology experts and others. Despite the diversity of this group, VIF members are bound by a common belief that internet freedom should be a key priority for the United States Government and its allies. A major component of the group’s advocacy work will focus on encouraging the U.S. Government and private sector to provide funding for a variety of tools and technologies that will give people locked behind censorship firewalls the ability to break through and communicate with each other and with the global community.
“VIF members have a long track record of speaking out forcefully and powerfully on key issues related to internet freedom,” said Randel Everett, President of 21Wilberforce, which co-founded VIF. “Speaking now as a formal coalition with a coordinated voice, this group can have an even greater impact – from highlighting effective circumvention technologies and other innovative tools, to calling out tech companies that fail to adequately support internet freedom, to urging the U.S. Government to generously fund internet freedom efforts.”
Additional Reading and Resources on Internet Freedom
21Wilberforce’s Internet Freedom Hub connects you to tools that help oppressed people access a free internet, updates on what is new in internet freedom, news, videos, and more.
Freedom on the Net is Freedom House’s annual survey and analysis of internet freedom around the world. This cutting-edge project consists of ground-breaking research and analysis, fact-based advocacy, and on-the-ground capacity building.
Fighting Splinternet: Keep the internet forever open and free – worldwide. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune published a haunting piece about the perils of closing access to the internet.
Statement on the Use of Technology and Religious Freedom. During the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department, 14 countries cosigned a statement on the use of technology and religious freedom. They agreed on a vision of an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet where the same human rights that individuals have offline are also protected online, including with respect to right to freedom of religion and belief and the right to freedom of expression, including the sharing of religious beliefs.