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Group of 60 nations back US push for an ‘open’ internet

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The Internet must remain open, protect the human rights of all people, and should not be used to further digital authoritarianism, a group of 60 mostly Western countries said on Thursday in a joint declaration, calling for efforts to ensure “the use of digital technologies reinforces, not weakens, democracy and respect for human rights”, offers “opportunities for innovation”, and helps societies connect.

The Declaration for the Future of the Internet was signed by 60 partners, according to officials in the US, which headed the effort, counting European Union nations, Australia, New Zealand and Japan as partners.

India was not among these countries.

A senior US administration official indicated that the declaration was aimed at combatting a growing “splintering” of the Internet, with countries like Russia and China on the other side of the spectrum with policies that censor swathes of the cyberspace for their citizens.

“On the international front — what we’re talking about today — we have seen a trend of rising digital authoritarianism, where some states have been acting to repress freedom of expression, to censor independent news sources, to interfere with elections, promote disinformation around the world, and deny their citizens other human rights,” the official said, citing recent example of Russia’s “disinformation” and internet censorship.

“Russia, however, is hardly alone but just one of the leaders in a dangerous new model of Internet policy along with the People’s Republic of China and some of the other most censorial states in the world,” the official added.

On India, the official said, “the hope remains that time isn’t fully passed yet for India to join. But we’ve been engaged in — in very intensive efforts to have all of these – all of these countries join”, also referring to others that were not a part of the declaration.

According to the text, countries backing of the declaration “intend to work toward an environment that reinforces our democratic systems and promotes active participation of every citizen in democratic processes, secures and protects individuals’ privacy, maintains secure and reliable connectivity, resists efforts to splinter the global Internet, and promotes a free and competitive global economy”.

Among other things, the declaration urges countries to refrain from “internet shutdowns or degrading domestic Internet access, either entirely or partially” and not misuse or abuse “the Internet or algorithmic tools or techniques for unlawful surveillance, oppression, and repression that do not align with international human rights principles, including developing social score cards or other mechanisms of domestic social control or pre-crime detention and arrest”.

Earlier on Thursday, the internet advocacy group Access Now, in the latest edition of its internet shutdown report, said there was an increase in the number of instances globally when countries shut down the internet in 2021 compared to the year before.

India saw fewer shutdown instances in 2021, but still remained the world’s biggest offender for the fourth straight year, the report said.

“In 2021, authorities deliberately shut down the internet at least 182 times across 34 countries,” the report said. “India is the world’s largest offender, and blacked out the internet at least 106 times.”

“For the fourth year in a row, India implemented shutdowns more than any other nation — at least 106 times. Indian authorities’ bold and unwavering pounding of the kill switch must stop,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy director at Access Now.

“An internet shutdown is not a solution — it is a disproportionate, collective punishment that violates human rights and is unacceptable in a 21st century society. The world’s largest democracy can only be preserved and strengthened with a commitment to facilitating access to the internet for all,” he added.

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