Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and vocal advocate for net neutrality, has called on the US and UK to do more to protect internet freedoms in the face of ‘the rising tide of online censorship and surveillance’.
Speaking at an Open Government Partnership event in advance of the release of his second Web Index Annual Report, Berners-Lee, who earlier this year described the NSA’s attack on international encryption standards as ‘appalling and foolish’, observed that a ‘free and open web means “don’t block me, don’t spy on me”’.
The report, which ranks countries in terms of the social and political impact of the web, places Sweden in the lead for the second year running, but the US drops from second to fourth place. The UK stays at third place, largely due to the high availability of relevant content and impact the internet has on politics, although both the US and UK are sharply criticised for their surveillance practices.
Globally, the report finds that,
‘Spying and blocking are on the rise. In nearly one in three countries, politically sensitive Web content is blocked to a moderate or severe extent, and only five counties in Web index (six percent) meet best practice standards for checks and balances on government interception of electronic communications (requiring a warrant from an independent court, substantive justification and transparency in the oversight process).’
The report goes on to observe that governments use scare tactics and bogeymen to gain public acceptance of what are in reality draconian assaults on privacy and the right to free speech,
‘Provisions against cybercrime, terrorism, or blasphemy are frequently being employed to silence legitimate dissent or justifying blanket digital surveillance.’
In order to counteract this trend the report calls on both governments and large technology corporations to take meaningful measures aimed at bolstering privacy and democracy,
‘Governments and civil society groups should initiate robust and participatory national debates on the role of the Web in achieving human rights and advancing national development – bringing together all social groups and stakeholders to build a vision for the role of the Web in achieving human rights and national policies and programmes needed to achieve that vision.’
‘Technology companies should accelerate their deployment of privacy enhancing technologies; oppose the development of specifications that enable excessive and invasive violations on the export of censorship and surveillance technologies to repressive regimes.’
The report finds that in the majority of countries women, low paid workers and smallholder farmers are given little support by the web, with locally relevant information on a range of topics such sexual and reproductive health, domestic violence, and inheritance largely non-existent.
On a brighter note, Berners-Lee found encouragement that ‘the web and social media are increasingly spurring people to organise, take action and try to expose wrongdoing in every region of the world,’ and that more people were using the internet to expose wrongdoing. However he also warned that ‘some governments are threatened by this, and a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy.’