What happened to the idea of a free internet?

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We have been living in the Internet Age for almost thirty years. Most of the global population is aged under thirty, so for the average person, this epoch is all they’ve known. But for those of us who can remember life before the Net, it’s clear to see how much has changed in those three, short decades. We’ve lost more than just the plaintive tones of forgotten dial-up modems; in fact, the very way we think about the internet has shifted. If the early days of the internet were defined by unbounded, almost giddy, optimism, today’s internet is much more likely to be viewed, at best, with weary cynicism. At worst, many of us – including most of our politicians and media – talk about the internet with a tone of outright distrust.

Every year, the charity Freedom House surveys the state of global internet freedom. And last month’s Freedom On The Net 2023 report found that internet freedoms worldwide declined in 2023 – for the thirteenth year in a row.

After all those years of decline, and all the negative chatter about the internet, it seems strange today to think of the internet as a force for good, for liberation. Yet that was the original vision of the internet’s founders. So where did it all go wrong, and what happened to the forgotten dream of a free internet?

Sebastian Schaub

CEO at hide.me.

A new hope

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the dawn of the Internet Age.

Beneath the neon glare of mid-nineties prosperity and the defiant sounds of hip-hop beats, you could make out hopeful strains of change. The idea was that the internet would liberate us: not only would it build bridges across oceans, continents, and worldviews, but we would all be given the keys to a vast repository of information, the world’s biggest library.

Perhaps the most utopian hope for the early internet, just decades on from the horrors of European fascism and the Second World War, was that this new tool would become a shield against authoritarianism. Certainly, it seemed that the internet might allow ordinary citizens to circumvent state censorship and expose the cruelties of tyrants.

Some optimists even dared to hope that the internet, in the hands of a free and informed global population, might even mean the end of authoritarianism as we know it. Just so long as the tyrants didn’t get there first.

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Empires strike back

Spoiler alert: thirty years later, the internet is still here – but so is authoritarianism.

Authoritarian states have always sought to control the information their citizens can access, and so a free internet – one without borders or blinkers – was always going to be viewed with suspicion by those who had the most to lose. In this case, that means authoritarian governments and freedom-sceptic politicians of all stripes. Since those early days, governments have taken steps to restrict internet use in various ways. Some states have even turned the internet back on its users, transforming this supposedly emancipatory technology into a means of spying on innocent citizens.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, watched with horror as his greatest creation was twisted by the very forces it was supposed to defeat. He has argued that the internet is becoming increasingly restricted by governments around the world, calling in 2014 for an ‘online Magna Carta’ to safeguard the idea of the internet as an ‘open’ and ‘neutral’ platform.

It is Berners-Lee’s belief that Governments ‘have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online.’ Yet by and large, governments are failing their citizens by ignoring this responsibility. If anything, government restrictions are becoming worse, and this explains why so many of us have allowed our hope for a free internet to fade.

A growing menace

In the three decades of the Internet Age, we have seen glimpses of the internet’s hopeful potential, but the trend has been for the early-days optimism to gradually become eroded by state censorship and internet misuse. In the early 2010s, the Arab Spring flared briefly as proof of the internet’s emancipatory power. As citizens across the Arab world took to the streets to protest authoritarianism and corruption in their governments, many looked to social media as the touchpaper which had made these protests possible. But since then, there has been precious little optimism about the internet’s ability to make the world a freer and fairer place. And with good reason – since the internet itself has become gradually less free and fair in that time.

It’s easy, of course, to blame this trend on obviously authoritarian states: Russia, for example, restricting its citizens from learning about the invasion of Ukraine, or China’s policy of sweeping internet restrictions – known as the Great Firewall.

Yet internet freedom is also in decline in Europe. Freedom House found that there was no European country where the internet became freer over the past year. Even liberal democracies – including the UK – routinely block citizens from accessing online content amid concerns about foreign interference, disinformation, and online safety.

Free speech activists have also spoken out against the UK’s Online Safety Bill, which became law in October. Critics say the bill is a threat to human rights, with the free speech charity Article 19 claiming the new law ‘undermines privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of information online.’ Among other things, the bill may end up compelling firms like WhatsApp to hand over encrypted messages to the government. WhatsApp has threatened to leave the UK before it ends its longstanding policy of securing users’ messages with end-to-end encryption.

While legislation like the Online Safety Bill is often (or at least ostensibly) driven by legitimate concerns – in this case, the wellbeing of young and vulnerable internet users – restricting the freedoms of law-abiding citizens cannot be seen as a solution to modern social problems. It sounds radical to say it, in this age of techno-pessimism, but internet users need more freedom – not less.

Return of the free internet

Despite the atmosphere of doom and gloom which surrounds the internet, it’s important to remember that all is not lost.

Many activists, founders, and citizens still believe in the liberating power of the internet. And there are still ways we can cup the fragile flame of online freedom and encourage it to burn as bright as the internet’s founders intended.

Thankfully, there are tools which citizens can use to circumvent state censorship. And there are those among us who would use these tools to reverse the trend of declining internet freedom.

VPN providers are at the forefront of the battle to steer the internet back on track. Their products allow internet users to regain their power and reclaim the initial idea of a free and open web.

In most territories, VPNs are completely legal, allowing internet users to safeguard their privacy while browsing and access geo-restricted online content. Many internet freedom activists view VPNs as the best way to rediscover the internet’s hopeful promise and reverse a sad trend of declining freedom.

We at hide.me agree. But more than that, we still believe in the promise of the internet as a borderless world, a means of frictionless communication and uninhibited access to information for everyone. And as the Internet Age enters its fourth decade, it has never been more vital to speak up for that liberating spirit.

If we rediscover the vision and optimism of the web’s past, then there is still time to secure the free internet of the future.

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Sebastian Schaub

Sebastian is the founder of hide.me VPN and he has been working in the internet security industry for over a decade. He started hide.me VPN to make internet security and privacy accessible to everybody.