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Global Internet under substantial threat, new report warns

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A new report by Pen America, yesterday, warned of new threats to free expression and online privacy by an increasing number of countries.

The report also laid out the evolution of the concept of digital sovereignty, the ways that governments have seized new powers over the Internet, and the unprecedented challenges supporters of a free, open Internet now face.

As authorities seize new powers over the Internet and even democratic leaders attempt to rein in unaccountable tech firms, PEN America warned that the global Internet is under substantial threat, with serious risks to free speech and freedom of expression online.

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In the report, Splintered Speech: Digital Sovereignty and the Future of the Internet, the literary and free expression group, PEN America, cautioned that as countries grapple with the threats of hate speech, disinformation, privacy risks, and online abuse, there is an ever-greater danger that governments will use these issues to justify seizing dramatic new powers over the Internet.

Across the globe, countries are invoking “digital sovereignty” as a rationale for expansive government regulation, yet it is troublingly easy for governments to invoke such sovereignty to justify actions that undermine, rather than safeguard, human rights or global connectivity.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in parts of the world, and countries from Myanmar, Belarus to India and Nigeria increasingly seeking to control what their citizens can and cannot access online, PEN America argued that the project of a unified and free global Internet is facing its greatest risks since the advent of the digital era.

PEN America’s director of research and lead author of the new report, James Tager, said: “While there are some good reasons for governments to extend their regulatory powers to the online sphere, on balance, countries looking to repress and silence online speech are wielding the language of digital sovereignty to stifle free expression, in some cases going so far as to force giants like Google and Facebook to become complicit in censorship and governmental repression.

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“Democratic policymakers must counter these efforts by offering a democratic vision for the future of the Internet, and by ensuring their own regulatory models prioritise the rights of the individual over the prerogatives of government. The international community must also make clear that autocratic efforts to splinter the global Internet serve no one’s interests but the autocrats themselves.”

PEN America’s latest report identified how China and Russia have been exporting their authoritarian visions of digital sovereignty to the global stage, threatening to fundamentally alter the global Internet.

The organisation warned that the embrace of elements of “digital sovereignty” from some democratic countries risks creating newly permissive conditions for governments to subvert human rights and global connectivity in the name of such sovereignty. At the same time, governments across the globe and across the political spectrum are claiming new powers over the Internet, meaning that the future of people’s human rights online is being decided today.

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