In age of ISIS, will you lose web freedoms of Arab Spring?

Editor’s Note: Rebecca MacKinnon directs the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America and is author of “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” She was CNN Beijing Bureau chief from 1998 to 2001 and Tokyo Bureau chief from 2001 to 2004.

Story highlights

Rebecca MacKinnon: Five years after Arab Spring, Internet freedoms that were key to protest are under threat

She says in new age of ISIS, government bodies are pressing tech companies for ability to monitor and censor online communication

She says social media's power as a journalist's tool in exposing injustice and for activists trying to build movements will corrode

CNN  — 

“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet,” Egyptian revolutionary and Internet executive Wael Ghonim told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer five years ago.

Rebecca MacKinnon

Ghonim spoke from experience. Back then, he ran a Facebook page that served as an information hub for the protesters who brought down the regime of dictator Hosni Mubarak during the run-up to the Egyptian revolution. Afterward, social media companies were lauded throughout the democratic world for empowering movements for justice, freedom and democracy.

Fast forward five years to today: Many Egyptian revolutionaries are in jail, and in many ways, our romance with social media and revolution has soured. The Internet remains a powerful tool for people fighting for social justice and human rights around the world, but we’ve witnessed the extent to which it also can be powerful in the hands of dictators and terrorists.

With headlines swirling about the Islamic State’s use of social media to recruit people from across the globe – sometimes mobilizing them to kill on ISIS’ behalf – we’re left with a challenge: How do we in the democratic world prevent terrorists from capitalizing on the Internet without compromising our own freedom?

How do we prevent our fears from leading us to destroy the very features activists and journalists around the world have come to depend upon?

Earlier this month, a delegation from the White House flew to Silicon Valley to talk with some of the world’s most powerful tech executives about “how to make it harder” for terrorists to use their products and platforms. Unfortunately, civil liberties groups and human rights experts were not invited.

To their credit, some companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook have joined forces with civil liberties groups in an attempt to persuade the Obama administration not to push anti-encryption measures that would enable government and law enforcement officials to access our secure communications.

If such “back doors” are introduced, it’s inevitable that criminals and repressive regimes will also be able to exploit them, enabling them to access to people’s private communications, identify journalists’ sources and gain knowledge of activists’ plans.

Yet pressure is mounting from politicians across the democratic world for global platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to increasingly monitor and censor users, and flag more content for government agencies. These companies publish “transparency reports” about the number of official government requests they receive, and this data shows that calls to restrict online speech have skyrocketed around the world over the past five years.

Transparency doesn’t stop the government agencies from making these demands, but it at least informs the public about who exactly is making them, what kind of speech different governments are trying to restrict and the extent to which companies are complying. After all, the most insidious type of censorship occurs when people don’t even know it is happening or who is responsible for it. And, that’s exactly what’s starting to happen.

More and more, governments are asking companies to censor content or disable users’ accounts through informal and extralegal processes, where there is no transparency or accountability.

As it stands, any individual or organization can report content that seems to be in violation of a company’s terms of service and community guidelines. Facebook employs hundreds of people around the world, proficient in a range of languages, to review these “flags” and decide whether content should be taken down or if a user’s account should be disabled.

YouTube has what it refers to as trusted “superflaggers,” who include authorities such as the Counter Terrorism Referral Unit of the UK’s Metropolitan police. The team’s reports are prioritized, and they can flag large numbers of videos at a time.

Executives at more than one major Internet company have privately confirmed to me, on condition that they or their companies not be named publicly, that officials in a range of countries, including India and Turkey, have learned to use such private flagging mechanisms.

That way, they can get content removed by company staff without having to issue formal requests requiring approval by their ministry or a court. Such requests’ validity is carefully reviewed for consideration by company lawyers who may potentially reject them, and which are then included by companies in their transparency reports.