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Tread softly in cyberspace

Technology
Democracy
On tip-toe

Steve Johnson under a Creative Commons Licence

The digital age requires a new way of thinking about security. The threats we face today seem to be unprecedented. Security challenges are global and more catastrophic than ever. The world is less stable and predictable. We must acknowledge that we are probably looking for more security than is attainable and that effective and proportionate laws to deal with security issues are needed.

That said, regulating the internet requires treading lightly, lest governments over-regulate and stifle the very freedoms they aim to protect. Governments and societies should be aware that there is nothing which might justify the erosion of certain basic principles and rights which form the bedrock of modern democracies.

Cybersecurity laws should not be misapplied or abused so that they hinder the work of journalists and suppress free media and the right of free expression. The words of John Locke come to mind: ‘The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.’

To make matters more complex, the exercise of democratic rights online, including freedom of expression and freedom of the media, mostly depends on the decisions made by private network owners and service providers. Big portals, search engines and technology manufacturers directly intervene in circulation, distribution and access to content and ideas on new platforms. They have become the main gatekeepers of the digital world. In many cases the effectiveness of so-called internet freedom will be in their hands.

No-one can claim that regulation is an easy task. Still, we could use one very easy rule when this issue is approached: those who govern least govern best. any regulatory or legislative measures must be decided upon with the backing of all stakeholders. Civil society, governments and businesses should all work together to safeguard user control, choice and privacy.

Media freedom and freedom of expression are cornerstones of any healthy democracy and of paramount importance to all of us. The right to speak our minds and for journalists to do their work freely and safely must be safeguarded – offline and online.

Ultimately, it is important to treat media freedom – and with it internet freedom – for what it really is: a strong test of democracy. To understand fully the importance of free media, one simply needs to examine what happens in a place without it.

Dunja Mijatović is the representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

New Internationalist issue 479 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2015 issue of New Internationalist.
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