The Right to Privacy: Protecting Our Digital Liberties

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As the distinction between our personal and digital lives begins to blur, the scrutiny of our online behaviour by corporations, institutions, and governments has inspired a new age of vigilance for web users, and a heightened concern surrounding the security of our private data. In the past few years, social media and email accounts have been subject to numerous data breaches and the companies responsible have been held largely unaccountable. The most notorious of these in recent months – Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal and Yahoo’s data breach – left millions of users’ data lost, stolen, or in the hands of unwarranted third parties. While certain governments have raised initiatives to help regulate data collection and distribution – such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – the fight for digital privacy and liberty is just beginning; not just for students, scholars, activists, and journalists, but for all members of society.

As public awareness of these issues has increased, many consumers have taken matters into their own hands by using commercial or open-source software to control their online footprint. More everyday web users than ever are turning to encrypted messaging and email, anonymous browsers like TOR, and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in an effort to avoid aggressive targeted advertising and drag-net surveillance. Once the domain of the few, these tools are becoming fundamental for everyday citizens to circumvent the increasingly draconian rules imposed on them by governments and private companies.

Aside from Internet security and political activism, these tools have become essential in granting the citizens of high-censorship nations unfettered access to the information we take for granted. In countries where certain political, cultural, or religious content is banned – such as China and Russia – the use of tools like VPNs or the Tor browser is vital for accessing unbiased information as well as voicing opinions and views freely. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council signed a resolution supporting the notion that Internet access and freedom of expression online is a fundamental human right, but despite these efforts, collective censorship across the globe has nothing but intensified. Many countries have begun banning social media platforms and sites encouraging freedom of expression. In 2017, China removed a staggering 128,000 websites for hosting supposedly ‘harmful’ and ‘vulgar’ content and for illegally disseminating news. Some countries have gone one step further and begun banning the use of VPN software.

For example, last year Russia passed a law banning the use of VPNs, and in March China passed legislation requiring all VPNs to be licensed by the government in order to comply with its ‘Great Firewall’ regulation. Even tech giants like Apple have submitted to these policies, removing a large number of VPN apps in the Chinese App Store so as to comply with the recent legislation. This decision has drawn criticism from both users and advocacy groups, who have accused the company of hypocrisy in claiming to champion user privacy whilst removing a population’s last route to unmonitored and unregulated information.

In times of political or civil unrest, this threat to centralised power has prompted some governments to block citizens’ internet access completely. Examples include Ethiopia’s Internet shutdown in 2017, in which access was blocked during a series of protests against the marginalization and persecution of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromos and Amharas. Former Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also blocked Internet access during times of political turmoil, whilst removing any content that the telecommunications regulatory authority, BTK, disapproved of. Despite the block, citizens were able to bypass the majority of government restrictions through the use of tools like VPNs and Tor.

Some of the Western world is also subject to unscrupulous privacy-infringing policies. In Australia for example, the government introduced a mandatory data retention scheme, which requires telecommunication providers to collect and retain all customers’ metadata and turn it over to the government. Privacy advocates Digital Rights Watch were quick to launch a National Get a VPN Day in response.

The fight for Internet freedom may have a long way to go for countries with political systems intent on indiscriminate censorship and surveillance. However, with increasing awareness and accessibility to privacy and security tools aimed at everyday people, there is hope that these barriers can be overcome and citizens all over the world can enjoy digital freedom and express themselves freely online.

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