Power, politics, and the internet

Contributed by Uma Kalkar. Uma is a senior undergraduate at the University of Toronto and 2019-2020 International Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress researching the politics of domestic and national digital divides.

In 2016, the United Nations classified internet access as a human right, deeming that cutting or censoring the internet by states impinges on personal freedoms. Unfortunately, conflict-heavy zones and politically unstable states deny their citizens unfiltered internet in order to isolate and control discussion and debate. Through internet censorship, governments attempt to hide regime atrocities and to revise history.

The internet is one of the main vehicles of communication and activism in the modern era. Yet nearly 4 billion people – 50% of the world’s current population – are left offline. Lack of digital infrastructure and difficulty using technology are reasons covered extensively in Chapter 1 of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives. However, for many people, issues of affordability and agency in manipulating the internet play large roles in the digital divide.

In 2011, protests for change ignited all across the Middle East and Northern Africa. To contain the revolutionary “Arab Spring” and its use of social media, some governments censored internet websites, tracked activity of dissenters, and ultimately shut down internet access. While countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya managed to enact some political change, other MENA countries, specifically, Syria, fell into full-blown civil war.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad, are active “Enemies of the Internet”. Due to extremely high restrictions to the web and on what sites can be access, Syrians are denied freedom of expression. In fact, Freedom House found that in 2016, only 30% of Syria is connected to the internet.

Why is the Syrian government determined to control the internet? With the help of pro-government group “Syrian Electronic Army”, the country blocks anti-government websites, targets activists with malware, and steals personal login information in order to contain and track protestors. By suppressing freedom of expression, Syria shrouds rebel activity and violence in a cloak of misinformation. Additionally, they prevent Syrians on-the-ground from communicating to the outside, limiting reliable data transmission and allowing inequality and atrocity to fester in darkness.

Inequal internet access is not only found in developing or instable countries. Disproportionately, racialized and/or lower-income people in the West are priced out of internet access because of oligopolistic telecommunications companies. Deprived of internet lifeblood, these residents cannot Google top news stories, ask Siri a question, search for jobs , or research topics for schoolwork.

study on internet access in Canada from 2012 to 2016 uncovered that 64% of families in the lowest income quintile did not have broadband access at home. In order to keep their power and prices high, Bell, Rogers, and Telus pressured federal and local Canadian governments to roll back telecommunications regulations and permit barriers to entry to prevent smaller internet service providers from getting into the market.

The U.S. is not free from internet strongmen either – communications giants Comcast and Charter dominate internet in America. Moreover, these two companies do not infringe on each other’s territory – creating a monopoly hold on broadband as they split cities among themselves. Disincentivized to connect everyone, less densely populated areas are often underconnected.

Both tyrants and tycoons use internet access as a means of control to digitally divide nations at a domestic and national level. Unfettered ability and agency to use the internet must occur to make sure no one is left behind.


What steps can we take, locally and globally to protect internet free speech and access?

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