On Jan. 25, 2011, protests erupted across Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. As an estimated 2 million people protested at Tahrir Square in Cairo, the government tried to control the narrative by first blocking Twitter and then Facebook. Within a couple of days, Egypt’s telecom services would go dark. According to reports at the time, “the shutdown caused a 90 percent drop in data traffic to and from Egypt, crippling an important communications tool used by antigovernment protesters and their supporters to organize and to spread their message.”
Egypt’s digital shutdown sent shock waves across the world, leading people to one conclusion: Internet freedom was under threat. In a speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that internet freedom “is about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where we live and the whims of censors.”
A decade later, the picture is quite different—because the world and the internet have both changed dramatically. In 2011, it was Facebook that was celebrated for accelerating Egypt’s awakening; in 2021, Facebook is vilified for seeming to do little to moderate posts in the world’s most violent countries, or for its struggles to contain insurrectionists’ posts. Today’s internet has become one that calls for safety rather than freedom, and governments are ready to step in, as evidenced by privacy-invading legislation in Canada, Australia, the U.K., and beyond.
Since the Enlightenment, public safety has been seen as the first duty of government. For the government’s guarantee of safety and security, Enlightenment thinkers observed, individuals would abandon the free state of nature. Hobbes wrote about this: “The end for which one man giveth up, and relinquisheth to another, or others, the right of protecting and defending himself by his own power, is the security which he expecteth thereby, of protection and defense from those to whom he doth so relinquish it.” For Enlightenment philosophers, security was central to the concessions people would make for the state.
Fighting misinformation (especially during a pandemic) and extremist content, seeking to expose child abusers who use internet services—all of these issues easily fall under the notion of “public safety,” and they provide the state with justification for intervention. If sovereignty is conditional upon the sovereign’s ability to ensure the safety and security of the people, then the state should have every right to act on any of these issues.
However, in practice, internet safety is opposed to the most fundamental benefits of the internet: empowering citizens, global interconnectedness, and opening new avenues for innovation. Whereas we once sought a more global and open internet, internet safety represents a movement that is inward-looking, fragmented—and often dangerously misguided.
The Online Safety Bill in the United Kingdom is a prime example. Promising to make “the UK the safest place in the world to be online,” the broad and unfocused bill contains threats to freedom of expression, privacy, security, and the internet. The bill’s main goal, to fight illegal and harmful content, would be accomplished by imposing a “duty of care” on internet service providers. The duty of care would also extend to users, who could face up to two years in prison for sending messages or posting content that causes “psychological harm” to others. If the bill passes, the U.K. government, in collaboration with the Office of Communication, the bill’s uberregulator, will need to introduce “codes of practice to specify different levels of the duty of care and liability.” (At the moment, the scope and reach of the duty of care remain unclear.) Furthermore, the bill would ban end-to-end encrypted communication services in the name of safety. Service providers would be criminally liable for the acts of their users if law enforcement agencies do not manage to get access to encrypted communications data. Finally, the Online Safety Bill would justify the criminal prosecution of tech executives who fail to address how their algorithms cause harm. “Remove your harmful algorithms today and you will not be subjected—named individuals—to criminal liability and prosecution,” said U.K. culture secretary Nadine Dorries.
Australia faces a similar situation. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2021 report says that “Internet freedom in Australia [has] regressed” thanks in particular to the passage of its own Online Safety Act. Enacted in June, the legislation introduces a set of “basic online safety expectations” that internet service providers, social media platforms, and other online parties are expected to uphold. These include protecting minors from certain content, responding to user complaints about cyberbullying targeting Australian children and the sharing of nonconsensual content, and removing content that is abusive toward Australians in general.
Finally, in Canada, elections put a temporary pause on a legislative proposal that targets five different categories of harmful content: hate speech, child sexual abuse, terrorism, incitement to violence, and the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images. The main focus is on big platforms (such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Pornhub), which will be required to take reasonable steps to block such content in Canada; once content has been identified as harmful and/or illegal, it will need to be removed within 24 hours. The act also gives law enforcement agencies discretionary powers “in identifying public safety threats.” On the Mozilla blog, Owen Bannett writes that “in its proposal that platforms take down more content in ever-shorter periods of time, the government’s approach merely responds to symptoms and not structural causes of online harms. Worse still, the government’s proposal includes some suggested policy ideas that would have the opposite effect of making online spaces healthier and more inclusive.” For instance, Bannett says, “The government’s apparent ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to objectionable content … manifests through the proposal that online services must report instances of ‘potentially criminal content’ to national security agencies. This … will incentivize greater and more invasive monitoring of individuals by platforms (e.g. upload filtering; real-name policies) and have a disparate impact on those individuals and communities who already face structural oppression in the criminal justice system.” The legislation is slated to return under the new government, and there is nothing to indicate it will not pass when it gets reintroduced.
In the name of safety, governments are placing conditions that make it increasingly difficult for internet actors to prioritize security. Encryption is a clear example. Encryption tools constitute important security building blocks and are a sign of a healthy network. So, when government interventions in the name of safety compromise encryption’s integrity, they create islands of insecure networks that will find it difficult to interconnect with secure ones, further fragmenting the internet.
Safety and freedom are not irreconcilable, and they should not be treated as such. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It is the responsibility of government to find the balance between safety and freedom. In its current application, however, the focus on safety facilitates the creation of central chokepoints that allow the state to intervene. Given that the global nature of the internet is a feature and not a bug, this intervention leads to fragmentation and conflict.
So why, then, is internet safety such a popular idea?
There is a practical reason, and it concerns the market’s failure to self-regulate and effectively address issues of safety. The very companies that were seen as beacons of internet freedom around the world 10 years ago are currently depicted as the causes of an unsafe internet environment. Data leaks, ransomware attacks, a wave of misinformation and disinformation, and various cybersecurity incidents have made us all feel less safe and, often, less free. For instance, earlier this year news broke that the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group was selling hacking software to authoritarian governments around the world to target human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and lawyers. With no solution coming from the market, governments had no option but to intervene, mainly through regulations that perpetuate the tension between safety and freedom. In fact, the Freedom on the Net 2021 report found that “while some democratic governments have made good faith attempts to regulate the technology industry, state intervention in the digital sphere worldwide has contributed to the 11th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom.”
No one wants an internet where illegal or harmful acts occur, where networks are accessed without authorization, where phishing and email frauds are rampant, and where sexual abuse and terrorism proliferate. Equally, we should not want an internet that is less global, is insecure, or where basic human rights are not respected. The problem is not with the term internet safety, per se. It is more about the way the phrase is being abused and, often, used as an excuse for control over global communications.
We must observe the way internet safety is used and call out the instances it is abused. The future of the internet might depend on it.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.