"Digital Authoritarianism": With Internet Shutdowns Normalised, the Digital Space is Democracy's New Battleground
the Indian Parliament approved the Citizenship Amendment Bill on December 11,
hundreds of thousands of Indians are protesting against the controversial
amendment, which critics claim marginalises Muslim minorities of the country.
In the wake of these protests, New Delhi's police department ordered the
country's largest telecom carriers to stop voice, text, and internet services
on December 18. Similarly, following revoking of the special status of the
Indian administrated Kashmir, internet access has been blocked in the region
for over 135 days. The consecutive internet shutdown in Kashmir is now being
called the longest ever internet shut down in a democracy. Internet shutdown by
states, especially during protests, is not unique to India. In Bangladesh, the
government has sometimes blocked independent news websites and arrested
ordinary citizens for social media contents deemed critical of the government.
During the 2018 road-safety protest, there were allegations of slowing down
mobile networks to limit internet usages and there had been cases of arrest of
social media users for "spreading fake news."
and social media platforms in their early days emerged as a beacon of light so
much so that prominent political scientists Larry Diamond hailed them as "liberating technologies." Diamond argued that these technologies "can expand
political, social, and economic freedom" and can even be used for "mobilising
against authoritarian rule." Of course, one could claim that the Arab Spring in
2011 provided empirical evidence in support of Diamond's argument. The Arab
Spring protesters across North Africa and the Middle East used the internet,
mobile phones, and various social media platforms to mobilise and overthrow
four dictators-Zineel Abadine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Ali
Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Bangladesh, the Shahbag movement in 2013 used platforms provided by the
internet to organise and spread its messages. Most recently, the road-safety
movement has relied heavily on social media to mobilise and disseminate
information not only because of the conveniences of quick information spreading
but also due to a lack of trust in the traditional news sources. Yet, the
increased usages of digital technologies by state apparatus to control
cyberspace has not gone unnoticed. Following the lead of China over the last
ten years, numerous countries around the world including Bangladesh have used
tactics of internet surveillance, particularly in attempts to curb anti-government
protests, and imposed legal restrictions to control cyberspace.
rise in attempts to control the cyberspace and restrict freedom of expression
online has been called digital authoritarianism. Digital authoritarianism
refers to the means through which authoritarian and repressive governments
surveil and repress dissent on the internet. These are done by creating laws,
policies, and regulations such as the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh.
Governments are also adopting more covert policies to delegitimise criticism,
for example, by claiming such opposing opinions as fake-news.
that extent, Freedom House estimates that the level of internet freedom
globally has declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019. A few important
takeaways from the Washington D.C based think tank's Freedom on the Internet
2019 report, which described the level of internet freedom for the year 2018,
are that, first of all, governments are not only limiting freedom of expression
online but also taking active legal steps against citizens. Of the 65 countries
assessed for the Freedom House report in 2019, that law enforcement agencies in
47 countries arrested people for posting political, social, or religious
content online. Secondly, an increased number of countries, 40 of the 65
countries in 2018, are adapting to the new culture of digital authoritarianism
by instituting advanced social media surveillance programmes. 15 of 40
countries that are using advance social media surveillance, it was only in the
past year that such programmes were either expanded or newly established. As a
result, 89 percent of internet users, close to three billion people, are being
monitored on social media. Finally, since 2018, overall internet freedom,
measured by a country's obstacles to internet access, content limits, and user
rights violations, declined in 33 countries. This indicates, as noted earlier,
the rise of digital authoritarianism around the world. The report also revealed
that Bangladesh, along with Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, witnessed
the biggest decline in internet freedom in 2018.
does such a continuous decline in internet freedom in Bangladesh and around the
world tell us? The diminishing freedom on the internet is indicative of the
ongoing democratic backsliding and shirking of freedom of expression around the
world. The democratic backsliding has been marked by a global shift towards
authoritarianism, diminishing press freedom, limits on freedom of expression,
and the rise of right-wing populist ideologies in all corners of the world.
Over the past 13 years, democratic norms and values have sharply declined in
both long-standing democracies such as the United States and the UK and other
regimes such as in Turkey, India, and Bangladesh. All in all, democracy, along
with citizen's freedom online and rights to freedom of expression, is in
efforts to control the internet and social media are responsive to concerns
over the government's ability to maintain domestic political control. Governments
that perceive their power or legitimacy to be threatened by a mass display of
dissatisfaction online or through protests are more likely to enhance
restrictive measures online. Such restrictive measures online are aimed to
limit the role of the internet and social media in spreading critical discourse
or mobilising protests. For example, India has been regularly shutting down the
internet. In fact, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre, various levels
of authorities in India have shut down the internet 376 times since 2012
including 134 in 2018 and 104 times in 2019.
internet freedom is followed by suppression or co-option of traditional news
sources. Populist leaders, for example, in India favoured media outlets that
are flattering to the governments while isolating, harassing, or even denying
licenses to critical news outlets. In other countries, harassments and killings
of journalists have become more common. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a
fierce critique of the Saudi government, was the most infamous recent case, but
it was hardly unique. Given the shirking press freedom, it is not surprising
that repressive governments would like to curb the scope of information
dissemination through the internet and social media, particularly when these
platforms become an alternative source of information due to the lack of
legitimacy of traditional news sources among citizens.
and social media platforms, and the cyberspace in general, have become the new
battleground for democratic norms and values. In 2019, Larry Diamond described
social media as a "major threat to democratic stability and human freedom" acknowledging the dismal shift in social media's role in promoting democracy
and freedom. Authoritarian and repressive governments are employing tactics and
tools of digital authoritarianism to constantly monitor citizens' activities
and eliminate any perceived dissents on the internet. Preserving internet
freedom, however, cannot be separated from preserving freedom of press and
freedom of expression offline as these are intrinsically connected and major
components of democracy.
Fahmida Zaman is a PhD student in Political
Science in the United States.