Opinion piece from Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Internet freedom in decline – a threat to our democracy

Published

The internet must not be a place where hate campaigns and disinformation take over the flow of information. We must have clear requirements for large corporations that dominate social media globally. It is in everyone’s interest that we do not leave the responsibility for our public debate and meeting places to companies, write Carin Jämtin, Margot Wallström and Peter Eriksson.

Freedom on the internet has declined for the eighth year in a row. The ability ofstates to shut down the internet is increasing. Journalists, independent media and human rights defenders are being subjected to physical and digital attacks. Opportunities to openly debate without risking hatred and threats, repression and persecution are being limited. The spread of disinformation is increasing and having a major impact.

On May 16-17 the Stockholm Internet Forum took place, bringing together 500 people from around 100 countries on the invitation of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to discuss the internet’s role and future challenges. The focus was the shrinking democratic space online and internet access. The need for an international dialogue about the internet has never been more urgent. 

Serious trend

The fact is that we are in the midst of a negative trend with serious consequences: authoritarian states are using advanced tools to recruit new supporters, polarise opinion, undermine democratic debate, and attack and silence opponents. Increasingly, automated information flows, increased data collection, disinformation campaigns as well as opportunities and challenges regarding artificial intelligence have gone from being peripheral issues to central issues for society.

This is happening in large parts of the world. The impact of the internet on democracy and society is being discussed across the world, from Bogota and Kigali to Hanoi. In all these places, the internet is of crucial importance to economic development and poverty reduction, and as more and more people become connected, the conditions for positive sustainable development improve. This is an aspect we cannot afford to overlook.

Place demands on social media giants

The disinformation campaigns we see – in some cases led by governments – risk threatening our democracy. The internet cannot be a place where hate campaigns and disinformation take over the flow of information. We must have clear requirements for large corporations that dominate social media globally. It is in our common interest that we do not leave the responsibility for our public debate and meeting places to companies. This is essentially a question of democracy, of the public debate.

The negative trend, with a shrinking democratic space online, is deeply worrying and serious. This must not continue and this is exactly why we need joint action on the future of digital development. Turning this trend requires political awareness and joint, international commitments on issues such as what the internet will be like and how it will be used in the future. Human rights must not be undermined; they must be strengthened through access to the internet. The solutions can only be found in discussions between all stakeholders – states, civil society and companies, as well as everyone who is dependent on the internet in their everyday lives and their work.

The internet can remain a positive force

The starting point for these discussions must be the incredibly important role the internet has played and continues to play in opening up closed societies, creating employment and hope for the future, enabling communication between people throughout the world and promoting knowledge flows and cooperation at a genuinely global level. Despite the problems we are seeing now, technological developments have essentially offered enormous opportunities and changed our world for the better. We must not allow the digital threats to make us passive. We must act now to ensure that the internet remains a positive force for development and democracy, and to protect access to the internet.

Half of the world’s population does not yet have access to the internet, and Sida is working to ensure that more and more people get connected. But what kind of internet they gain access to is up to us. Together with all other actors, whowant to work for a free, open and secure internet, we must mobilise for joint solutions. Many of those actors met at the Stockholm Internet Forum. We are proud to live in a free country, which can offer an important meeting place to human rights activists and journalists, who are under threat, to engage in these important discussions.

Carin Jämtin 

Director-General, Sida

Margot Wallström

Minister for Foreign Affairs

Peter Eriksson 

Minister for International Development Cooperation