With the Internet came freedom. Freedom to converse, curate, collect, create, and circulate. The freedom to be, think, act, and connect is the promise of democratisation of the Internet. It enables people across traditional silos to reach over and form new bonds of belonging and coming together. It challenges the vanguards of knowledge by curating information from multiple sources, challenging the status quo with new critical voices. It destabilises the erstwhile centres of information and knowledge production and kickstarts a zeitgeist of user-generated content. It builds an architecture that makes everybody their own personal archivist, chronicling lives in minutiae that would otherwise have been lost. It makes us not just mobile-wielding people, but mobile people, finding an ease of movement that was unknown to older generations.
The freedom to be who we are, to do what we will, and to form commons of collective action and agency marks the internet age. And yet, this freedom is paradoxical. Even as it crosses boundaries, it creates new borders through granular filter bubbles that reinforce our dogmatism. While it challenges the status quo, it also gives way to polarised expressions of hate and violence resulting in digital troll armies and physical lynchmobs. The freedom to choose what we collect and who we speak to increases individual choices while compromising collective civil liberties at the behest of authoritarian governments and surveilling corporations. We write our new histories while also revising the old ones to disarticulate protections afforded to the most vulnerable of our communities. The internet, it would seem, is contrary, contradictory, and confusing as it simultaneously amplifies and destabilises the order of things.
This contradictory nature of the internet easily lends itself to politics of despair, questioning the value and worth of internet freedom if its harms seem to outstrip the affordances it offers. Once you see people on Twitter asking for their food delivery persons to be changed because they come from a different religion, you have to think fondly of the times when people’s bigotry was limited to their living rooms. The mindless flurry of good-morning messages and misogynist jingoism that marks our WhatsApp groups make us seriously question if unmediated information flow is actually worth it. Every instance of targeted advertisement, manipulative content, and misinformation that comes our way through correlating algorithms force us to evaluate the value of user-generated content. A couple of hours on Instagram and Snapchat and looking at people performing their lives as flattened fakeness on scrolling screens gives us existential thoughts about whether all these friends, followers, likes, and hearts are worth the trouble they seem to be putting people into. A look on the dark side and it is easy to be convinced that Internet Freedoms need to be controlled, regulated, and clamped down upon.
These are questions that can inform policies, shape user behaviour, and control the regulation of information towards censorial, closed, and opaque information systems. This is dangerous because all of these questions are about the “freedom to” promises of the internet. They focus on actions, transactions, reactions, and exactions of our digital behaviour. However, in censoring and regulating these “freedoms to” we often end up cracking down on “freedoms of”. We have to remember that the despair of the “freedoms to” are about the human capacity to abuse the freedoms given to us. Whereas the “freedoms of” are the abstract but material freedoms of speech, expression, self-determination, dignity and life, and if we don’t distinguish the two, we would compromise our fundamental rights in the quest of curtailing specific actions.
We need to recognise these “freedoms of” as fundamental freedoms without which the very conception of contemporary human life is difficult. Concentrating only on the “freedom to” allows for suspensions of our basic rights: an intermediary removing and censoring information without due process, bloggers getting arrested for political protests, civil society organisations trolled and silenced, individual information leaked, big data sets sold without consent, and direct attacks on those who critique the status quo. Internet’s “freedom of” is not just about regulating technology and penalising human behaviour but about the foundational rights and liberties we protect and champion as humans. If the dark side of the abuse of “freedom to” gives us despair, the optimistic imagination invested in the “freedom of” gives us hope. I am not going to facetiously declare that Internet Freedoms are Human Freedoms, because it is too trite an equivalence. But, an authoritarian control of Internet Freedom to action can severely compromise our rights to being free, and human.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.