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Is Digital Technology Advancing or Limiting Freedom of the Press?

The Internet is a powerful vehicle for expanding freedom of the press.  Whether this vehicle is driven successfully in the right direction, however, is not inevitable. Even in the age of high-speed Internet and always-on mobile devices, the expansion and protection of press freedom requires specific political, economic, and regulatory conditions.

Invented 25 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web is the common interactive “language” upon which revolutionary applications and interactive platforms have been built: first personal website-hosting services in the 90s, then blogging software in the early 00s, followed by social media like Facebook and Twitter. The Web has democratized and decentralized the function of “press:” One no longer needs substantial economic resources in order to share information or perspectives that have at least a small audience, somewhere.

When I joined CNN in 1992, if a person living in Kenya or Tunisia or Cambodia wanted the world to pay attention her story, she had to capture the interest of journalists working for a major news outlets like CNN or the New York Times or Newsweek magazine, whose editors would then decide whether and how they wanted to tell it. By the time I left CNN in 2004, that same person could create her own blog without needing specialized technical training. She could report her story directly onto the World Wide Web where it could be shared globally without relying on powerful media gatekeepers.

During the 2013 protest movement in Turkey which started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park before expanding nationwide, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci documented how demonstrators relied on Twitter as their main news source. Turkish mainstream news outlets were kept too tightly under the thumb of Prime Minister Erdogan to report on a movement that was directly critical of his government’s policies. “I knew there was censorship on TV,” she quoted one demonstrator in a recent article for Matter, an online magazine of science and technology. “But it wasn’t until Twitter came along I realized how bad it was.”

Digitally networked technologies certainly make it harder for governments to perpetuate blatant lies for very long. That is not the same thing, however, as having a free press.

Turkey is a democracy. It has a business-friendly economy. At the same time it is the world’s number one jailer of journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey now holds more journalists in its jails than Iran, China, or Eritrea. “There is a red line now that journalists in Turkey know not to cross,” Turkish journalist Nedim Şener told attendees of the committee’s Press Freedom Award ceremony last November. He himself was imprisoned 376 days and still faces trial on terrorism charges for exposing officials involved in the killing of another Turkish journalists.

Subduing the professionals is no longer enough, however, if citizen journalists remain active and visible. To deal with that challenge, Turkey’s ruling party recently pushed through parliament a draconian new censorship and surveillance law. Turkey’s telecommunications authority now has the power to block any website without first obtaining a court order. The same law also requires Internet service providers to retain all user data for two years, and to make it available to authorities upon request.

Turkey reflects a disturbing global trend: Governments around the world are pushing to expand their own legal powers to censor, track, and punish those who report in ways that threaten their power – be they full-time professional journalists working for news organizations or “citizen journalists” posting on blogs and social media. Globally, as more journalism is disseminated online – with a growing proportion produced by “citizen journalists” – the number of jailed journalists tracked by the CPJ around the world has risen from 81 in 2000, to 211 in 2013. Half of those jailed in 2013 are being punished for some form of online journalism.

China is the third biggest jailer of journalists behind Turkey and Iran. It may be a communist one-party state but it also boasts nearly 600 million Internet users. In my 2012 book Consent of the Networked I described how China is now “exhibit A” for how an authoritarian government, unencumbered by an independent legal system or enforceable free speech protections, can severely constrain and even prevent the expansion of press freedom even in the Internet age. The Chinese Communist Party applies a set of flexible and tech-savvy tactics that I call “networked authoritarianism.” China’s leaders recognize they cannot control everybody all the time if they want a functional economy. Rather, they focus on managing and controlling the types of speech that they identify as posing the greatest threat to their power. As a result, Chinese people feel much more free than they did 30 years ago to live their lives as they want and talk about what they want – as long as they do not mount direct challenges to the one-party state.

The Chinese Communist Party sometimes nudges – sometimes shoves – Chinese Internet users away from its political boundary lines. It uses a combination of censorship, propaganda, direct threats to troublemakers, heavy investment in homegrown media platforms, and on social media a state-sponsored variant of what the advertising world calls “astro-turf”: paid commentators posing as grassroots citizens. In this way, the Chinese leadership has so far managed to have their cake and eat it too: they have connected China to the global Internet in order to benefit from international trade and investment while preventing the press – amateur as well as professional – from sharing too much information to widely that would aid efforts to undermine the CCP’s grip on power.

Government’s ability to chill the press is by no means limited to authoritarian regimes, however, even if the chilling effect is much more subtle.  A survey of over 500 American writers conducted in October 2013 by the PEN American Center points to clear evidence that American writers lack confidence that the NSA will not abuse its surveillance powers over mobile and Internet communications. According to PEN, one in six writers surveyed has avoided writing or speaking on a topic that they thought would subject them to surveillance. Others are choosing not to pursue certain types of research subjects online, or are limiting communications with sources on certain subjects. As one respondent wrote: “I have dropped stories in the past and avoided research on the company telephone due to concerns over wiretapping or eavesdropping.”

It is vital for the future of press freedom that we hold government accountable for its actions and demand an end to laws and government practices that make genuine accountability impossible. But given the extent to which government now relies on companies like AT&T and Google for its surveillance information, it is equally important that companies must be held accountable in two ways. First, we must hold companies accountable for how they respond to government demands, and whether they are doing everything within their legal power to protect their users’ rights. Second, we must insist that companies be honest and clear with their users about how they collect, store, and share peoples’ data as well as “meta data”: information about a person’s movements and communications that help a government agent (or an advertiser) build a profile of that person preferences, activities, and friendships.

The fundamental challenge we face today is actually a variant of a much older challenge that people started asking when most of the world was still run by monarchies: how do we create a society that supports and values a free press?

The Internet is in many ways like any other space or medium over which people compete for power and influence. Without governance based on consent of the governed, freedom of expression and innovation cannot thrive because whoever happens to be strongest and biggest, with the greatest numbers of people behind them, will naturally do whatever they can to maximize their own power.

If we want to avoid an Orwellian Internet – or an Internet that mirrors the winner-take-all, dog-eat-dog world depicted in the Game of Thrones – we need to make sure that the services, platforms, and devices that make up the Internet are developed and operated in a way that is fundamentally compatible with free expression values. Using our power as consumers, investors, and voters, we can demand greater transparency from the companies so that we can know what they and all of their business partners are doing with our data. We must also demand transparency about what measures our Internet service providers may be taking to manipulate or limit our ability to access to information that may be produced by their competitors, or competitors of their commercial partners and affiliates.

Freedom is further maximized when coupled with an economic and regulatory system that celebrates and fosters competition and innovation by the smallest and scrappiest of startups, nonprofits, and entrepreneurial individuals – not just the largest corporate giants with the deepest pockets to lobby for laws that favor their success.

These are the prerequisites for a free press that is empowered by technology while acting as a watchdog against abuses of that same technology. When governments or companies (or any other powerful group or entity for that matter) exercise power through these technologies, we must be able to know – and draw attention to – the fact that power is being abused.

Neither the fundamental principles of freedom, nor the formula for their defense, have fundamentally changed. The struggle has simply expanded into a new digital dimension. Freedom was not “free” before the Internet was invented. Preserving and defending freedom has always required a struggle – often at the cost of major human sacrifice. It is time to accept the reality that freedom will be no less costly in the Internet age than it was before.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you feel that the Internet has made you more or less informed about your community, your country, or the world more broadly?
  2. Do you believe that a person who posts eyewitness accounts and photos of a protest or other breaking news event to Twitter should be considered a part of “the press” whose freedom to report should be defended?
  3. Does citizen reporting through social media have greater value in repressive or quasi-authoritarian societies where professional media is heavily censored than in democracies where the press is much more free?
  4. Have you changed your online behavior in any way over the past year due to concerns about either government or corporate surveillance?