The internet has changed the world. The world is also continuously changing the internet.

We all contribute to those changes – as users and creators and sharers of content, consumers, investors, and as voters. Many readers of this blog and participants of this week’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting have done much to shape our information environment through leadership positions as entrepreneurs, business executives, lawmakers, regulators, journalists, activists, researchers and thought leaders.

We are collectively responsible for the results.

While there is much to be proud of, it is clear to anybody who follows the news that the world is not going to be more free, democratic, just and prosperous simply because the internet connects billions of people, and innovative new information technologies continue to proliferate and bring handsome returns to investors.

If we want a global information environment that supports human rights, accountable governance, social justice and economic justice, then our information technologies – along with the institutions that influence and operate them – need to be structured and governed in a manner that reflects and reinforces those values.

We’re failing the next generation

Our physical existence is now shaped by complex information ecosystems. We depend on an array of software and hardware, media platforms, data storage and transmission systems to conduct most aspects of our personal and professional lives. But are these information ecosystems being built and managed in a manner that sustains a rights-respecting society?

To borrow from the language of environmental sustainability: are we creating and using information technologies and systems in a manner that meets our needs for the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? Are we working mindfully to ensure that in using and shaping technology to address today’s urgent problems we are not compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy their political, economic, cultural and social rights regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender, or sexual orientation?

No, we are not.

According to the human rights group Freedom House, global online freedom has been on a steady decline over the past six years. Two-thirds of all internet users “live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.” The organization’s researchers also found dramatic growth in the number of countries that “required private companies or internet users to restrict or delete web content dealing with political, religious, or social issues”.

Preventing our voices from being heard

This trend has had a clear impact on people I work with. Twelve years ago I co-founded Global Voices, a citizen media community that curates, translates, and amplifies the stories of marginalized or misrepresented people around the world. At the time we celebrated how new technologies made it possible for individuals to circumvent mainstream media gatekeepers and report to the world about what was happening in their communities.

Yet our Executive Director Ivan Sigal recently wrote that “it is now more challenging, more risky, and sometimes simply dangerous to produce the kinds of stories we do”. This is not only due to censorship but also because “our online lives are continuously surveilled and monitored, by social media companies, by third-party applications and advertisers, and by government agencies”.

Granted, all governments face serious and often urgent threats to national and public security that the internet has exacerbated. Unfortunately, even major Western democracies are grabbing at solutions that may address threats in the short term, but over the long term are corrosive and unsustainable for human rights and accountable governance.

 Internet freedom in 2015: since then, even Western democracies have put in place measures that threaten freedom online.
Internet freedom in 2015: since then, even Western democracies have put in place measures that threaten freedom online.

For example, in November the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, granting police and intelligence agencies the most sweeping surveillance powers in the Western world, lacking due process or checks against abuse. The US-based non-profit Internet Archive, a digital library that works to preserve a historical record of online content, is so concerned about the incoming Trump administration’s attitudes about the press and public speech that it has announced plans to store a backup of its data in Canada.

Meanwhile, billions of people have come to depend on the digital products and services of an increasingly small number of companies that serve as choke points for our personal data, our speech, what we know and even believe. I warned in my 2012 book, Consent of the Networked that these “sovereigns of cyberspace” – multinational behemoths like Google, Facebook and Apple – hold growing sway over our civic lives and therefore should be accountable to the public interest.

Networked authoritarianism

Today, citizens of Western democracies are debating the impact on our elections of “fake news” spread through social media platforms. Globally, this is not so new: manipulation of social media by governments and political parties to spread disinformation and sow division between different social, political and religious groups was already part of the digital landscape in many parts of the world five years ago. In 2011 Global Voices contributors identified cases in Bahrain and Syria after the Arab Spring and in Russia at the height of opposition protests. My argument that authoritarian regimes can actually adapt and thrive in the age of social media did not resonate widely with Western audiences so soon after the Arab Spring. Now, in 2017 the phenomenon I called “networked authoritarianism” is clearly spreading.

Communications law scholar Tim Wu describes today’s internet as the “party that went sour”. Utopian fantasies about the internet as an intrinsically liberating force have given way to realization that the world’s most advanced societies have developed an unhealthy dependency on platforms and services that monetize every scrap of our attention – incentivizing the spread of salacious and titillating content over fact-based discourse and driving corporate collection of vast troves of information about our habits and activities. Internet critic Evgeny Morozov is calling for a total “rethink [of] the fundamentals of digital capitalism”.

Looking to environmentalists for solutions

Even though we are a long way away from achieving environmental sustainability, thanks to the hard work of scientists, advocates, policy-makers, responsible investors and corporate visionaries over many decades, we at least have a roadmap for how companies, nations and communities can not only operate and live sustainably but contribute to – and even profit from – the development of sustainable technologies.

Yet as we struggle along that already difficult path that values long-term impact over short-term gratification, we find ourselves urgently needing a second roadmap: for an information ecosystem that sustains human rights. Indeed, due to the importance of politics and public opinion for implementing effective environmental and climate policy, it has become clear that our hopes of environmental sustainability are diminished if we lack freedom of expression and privacy that enable people to speak up, organize and hold government and corporations accountable.

Fortunately, some of the tools that were first built to help companies and governments improve environmental sustainability can also be adapted to help foster a more sustainable information ecosystem. Environmental, social and human rights impact assessments are now a standard component of responsible business and policy planning across the world. For example: before a new energy facility is built in a given location, it is standard practice that the relevant government agencies and private companies carry out impact assessments to identify how the natural environment and human communities will be affected, then take steps to mitigate potential harms and ideally implement measures that bring net benefits.

A small number of some of the world’s biggest internet and telecommunications companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Vodafone and Orange, have started to carry out human rights impact assessments that include an examination of how their products and services affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. Most of these companies are members of either the Global Network Initiative or the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue, organizations that bring companies together with other stakeholders to advance best practices in dealing with censorship and surveillance demands from governments.

Still not doing enough

At Ranking Digital Rights, a project I run that benchmarks ICT sector companies on their commitments, policies and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy (modeled after the way companies are assessed on other environmental and social sustainability practices), our research has found that companies still do not adequately address a range of issues, particularly those related to consumer privacy and the way in which terms and conditions are decided and enforced. There isn’t yet clarity or consensus among experts on how one would evaluate corporate responsibility in the use of algorithms that shape how information is prioritized and highlighted to users – though it is clear that more transparency and stakeholder engagement is critical. But the impact assessments taking place are nonetheless an important step in the right direction because they reflect a recognition by the companies that, regardless of intentions, bad things can occur unless they make an effort to anticipate and mitigate harm.

Governments often fail to carry out any impact assessments on information policy. While hate speech and the spread of extremist content online are valid problems, the European Commission made no attempt to assess the broader impact on the global information ecosystem – in which censorship of political and peaceful religious speech is rampant – of its new code of conduct compelling internet companies to remove speech as soon as it is flagged as problematic without instituting recommended measures for due process, accountability or transparency to prevent abuse of the system by authorities. When impact assessments are done, they’re generally confined to the jurisdiction where the policy is made, even if it will have an impact across globally interconnected information networks. While the UK government did undertake an impact assessment to determine how the Investigatory Powers Act would affect British citizens, it did not consider the broader impact on the global information ecosystem, even though human rights groups around the world have warned that its impact will be decidedly negative.

What we can do

As investors, consumers and voters there is much that everybody can do to push companies and governments to do a better job of protecting and respecting basic digital rights like freedom of expression and privacy. The struggle will never end – just ask people who have spent their lives working on environmental and social sustainability – but at least we do have some models on which to proceed. An impact assessment model for evaluating information policy solutions for the private and public sectors can provide us with a more stable foundation for addressing an even more complicated and confusing layer of questions about information manipulation, hate speech, demagoguery, propaganda and media business models without reaching desperately for drastic measures (like holding platforms liable for users’ speech or reviving criminal libel laws) that will ultimately make the global information environment even less free and open.

Building an information ecosystem that respects and protects human rights will be the job of a generation, or perhaps even two, but will be vital if we want the Fourth Industrial Revolution to take humanity in a more just, prosperous, healthy and peaceful direction.