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Google or the government: who’s really controlling our freedom online?

Internet connection

It’s an apt time to reflect on online freedom. On 3 May it’s World Media Freedom Day and South Africa, which has just passed a bill severely restricting what the press can report on, celebrates its freedom day this weekend.

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Together with a dash of reflection and a dose of predictions by Google’s Eric Schmidt, what can we learn about where we stand when it comes to liberty in today’s digital world? In the US, support for the recently passed CISPA bill has lately increased, Google’s been slapped on the wrist for capturing illegal Wi-Fi data in Germany following previous antitrust bashing by the EU and Iran is moving ever closer to making its own version of the internet.

The internet and innovations around it have created important opportunities enabling people to spread information and ideas. Through the evolution of this form of media and communication we are given the power to hold organizations and governments adequately accountable. Though revolutionary as this might be, governments have found ways to sometimes exploit these powerful tools in attempts to fight hate-speech or establish security for example.

As the pendulum swings, some of these attempts often cross the line where content is censored or people’s internet activity is being monitored. Here, freedom refers to the boundary that exists between public and private, the citizen and the authorities. By valuing privacy, you value your privacy to make decisions without any higher-up censoring or dictating.

Former Google CEO and current executive chairman Eric Schmidt recently said that the “internet brings freedom; freedom of speech, freedom of information and in some cases, as we have seen with the Arab Spring, revolution.” In this article by the Wall Street Journal he warns us of the “dark side” that comes along with the internet.

Granted, he’s speaking about the future, and half of Schmidt’s article does in fact sound like an extract out of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He suggests that the digital revolution, although suffering a few hiccups, will eventually overcome the future oppressors. He argues that autocratic regimes will start seeking tools to monitor citizens in an attempt to strengthen the force of digital police. These predictions though might not be as far-fetched as they seem.

Today Iran is probably the country using the world’s most sophisticated methods of censoring and controlling the internet. The country is planning on filling the used-to-be-YouTube gap with its own competitor namely Mehr. The Iranian minister has also announced the launch of an ‘Islamic Google Earth’. This came after fears were being raised labeling Google’s satellite imagery and map service a “spying tool of the West.”

Despite India’s latest milestone in certifying the country’s first late night adult show, the world’s largest democracy has struggled to adapt to its overwhelmingly large population’s online presence. Since the beginning of this month the Indian government and its agencies have started monitoring telecommunications and internet services, meaning that all modern forms of communication will be under the gaze of the authorities. The CMS or Centre Monitoring Services has set up a “social media lab” which monitors user activity on sites like Twitter and Facebook for example.

Google has just released its annual transparency report, with the internet giant reporting a total of 2 285 removal requests. Governments moving in this direction are discomforting — yes, but they aren’t necessarily the ones we need to worry about the most.

Despite Schmidt’s freedom activist speeches, Google has been repeatedly fined by European data protection regulators. Earlier this week Google was fined over US$180 000 by German privacy regulators accusing the search giant of stealing WiFi data (again) using its Google Street View service.

It doesn’t matter if you care about what happens in the tech world of petitions and court orders, the fact of the matter is it affects you one way or the other. Technology is shaping our world and understanding how and more specifically who is driving it, is important. As the South African government cracks down on media with the Protection of State Information Bill, essentially limiting government transparency through traditional media, hopefully the alternatives will manifest themselves successfully.

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