How to know your way in a digital forest?

A girl in the forest

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Free internet can be a wonderful site, like a magical forest where you can exchange valuable information and thoughts with other delightful creatures such as yourself. However, sometimes one might lose track and face scary beings who are out to mislead you, or even worse, harm you. 

Remember what happened in the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood”? The little girl refused to tell the wolf where she was going, but the Big Bad Wolf distracted the girl, arrived at grandma’s house, stole their identities, and ate them both. As it goes for literal forests, so it does with proverbial forests such as the internet: be careful, be smart, know the rules of the forest.

It’s a short fall from free to partly free

The foundation of a digital forest is the trust between a government and its citizens. Luckily, some good souls have created a map that helps us understand how the woods are governed in different parts of the world. Freedom House’s global internet freedom index analysed the rights and liberties of 65 countries (87% of internet users worldwide), and here, Estonia reached 2nd place behind only Iceland. Estonia’s overall score in the Freedom on the Net 2020 report is 94/100, which is good news for us!

The less encouraging news is that over the last ten years when the report has been published, internet freedom has worsened globally. For example, for the fourth consecutive year, this has happened in the United States (10th place), where the internet freedom is rated free, whereas Kenya (16th place) is the first out of the so-called green zone and considered only partly free. A somewhat alarming indicator for those countries around the world that have been seen as leaders in the field so far.

Protection or restriction?

However, there is plenty of blame to go around. “Governments across the world have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to expand online surveillance and data collection, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control. All this has resulted in a dramatic decline in internet freedom,” the report states.

According to the analysis, authorities censored independent reporting on the virus in 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries. In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a justification to impose vague or overly broad speech restrictions. Also, residents of at least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns, with governments denying certain population groups access to life-saving information. “History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to stick around,” warns Adrian Shahbaz, co-author of the report.

One of the rapporteurs, open government expert Hille Hinsberg emphasises: “We witness restrictions on rights in other countries, indicating that the erosion of internet freedom can take place slowly and emerge as a series of changes in regulation and by government decisions. Therefore, the issues related to privacy, free speech, data protection must be constantly addressed.”

Online freedom is part of human rights

Simultaneously, here in Estonia, citizens can monitor which government institutions have viewed their data. This can be done in the portal. The data belongs to the citizens, and we have the right to know who used our personal information and for what purposes. And we couldn’t imagine it in any other way!

Similarly to many other countries, during the pandemic, Estonia created an app, which helps the user detect whether they have been near someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. While some countries prioritised implementation speed and then faced low adoption rates among the general public, Estonian technology experts assessed HOIA‘s security features first. That way, the population could trust that neither the state nor the Estonian Health Board can receive information about the infected’s identity, their movements, and contacts.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu suggested that Estonia considers online freedom an integral part of human rights. “The availability of the internet makes countries more transparent, strengthens civil society, and grows the economy. Whenever we are sharing our digital lessons with other countries, we always explain that only a free society can be a truly successful digital society.”

Another Estonian contributor to the report and CEO of Proud Engineers, Laura Kask, states: “We need to be careful in keeping the balance between the obligation of telecommunication companies to store data and this data being accessed by law enforcement to avoid excessive interference with privacy – for national security, for investigating and prosecution of criminal offences.”

Don’t feed the beast

However, if the Brothers Grimm would tell us a story about “Hansel and Gretel” today, they might well be tempted to replace white pebbles and bread crumbs left behind by children with traces of data found throughout the forest. Should a cannibalistic witch ever threaten your safety and well-being, there better be a trace that helps to locate the criminal and find your way home.

We live in a time where the only way forward is digital. Therefore, decisions that put the integrity, transparency, and security of the data at risk, will define the state’s future more than we can imagine. Every restriction from the government’s side should be proportional and well thought-through.

Citizens everywhere should pay attention to law enforcement so they wouldn’t get distracted and end up in the evildoer’s belly. At least equally important, government authorities must make sure that they don’t fight one digital wolf by creating a digital predator of their own.

Written by
Gete Tammann

Events coordinator at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre


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