After years and years of technological advancement, humans have benefited from a wide range of technologies ranging from cloud computing to biometrics. Yet, such comprehensive and omnipotent tools have been permeating into our daily lives without us even knowing. When we are using the Internet to understand what is happening on the other side of the world, the upper hand is at the same time manipulating these fascinations to surveil the society. What do we, as ordinary people, have in our hands to protect our core values without the delusion of the ever-changing technologies?
Struggles! Manifestations of authoritarian features in democratic systems
When people are asked to differentiate between authoritarian and democratic states, the first things that come to mind are usually concerns about “choices” and “freedom”. This simplified concept is not wrong by nature, but, in reality, the differences are not that distinct as we would have imagined.
According to Juna J. Linz’s and Alfred Stepan’s work in 1996, there are four different aspects analyzing the characteristics of a regime, namely pluralism, ideology, mobilization, and leadership. An authoritarian regime, Linz notes, exercises limited pluralism and ideology, somewhat constrained leadership, and weak mobilization. With the help of these categorizing parameters, we can now understand how authoritarian or democratic a society is.
The centrifugal problem of differentiating true democracy and false democracy, or you may call it authoritarian democracy, is the degree of which the rulers can exercise their power without limitations of other stakeholders and how public processes can affect the decision-makings of the government. For example, in Hungary, although throughout the decade they have averaged a good democratic index, their democracy is strained. Yet, seemingly, Hungary has not done anything undemocratic, like holding political prisoners, killing journalists, or banning opposition parties. They achieve power by owning media companies, influencing businesses to support them and making sure that the opposition parties do not get financial support. While the country is seriously compromising the democratic functions, it still has legitimacy, which is the key to a symbolized ‘democratic governing’. The example of Hungary is a perfect fit for being an autocracy.
Considering this, it is especially important to consider the existence of such autocracies and how their exploitation of power could lead to decreased levels of Internet freedom. The article will give examples of Internet censorship in authoritarian countries and how they have affected the people of the nations.
Belarus- the Eastern European Example of Internet Censorship
We have seen how authoritarian governments do not even need legitimacy when censoring Internet and online content. After the 2020 elections in Belarus, there was a complete Internet shutdown, with only the permittance of 2G networks, text messages and voice calls. For 61 hours straight, nobody could connect to the Internet. While Belarus publicly owned telecom provider Beltelekom and the National Traffic Exchange Centre argued that it was a DDoS attack, independent experts and monitoring groups did not notice such form of cyberattack.
Yet, because of the aforementioned reasons of authoritarian governments abusing democratic systems, there was not a need for a state of exception. This hegemony exercised by the Belarus government had a significant influence on the people of Belarus. Although right after the announcement of Alexandro Lukashenka’s landslide victory protests started to form, people were unable to do it in a coordinated manner.
For example, Alexander, 42, a protester in Minsk, said he had not read a news article or social media post in two days: “I can’t see the news so I really don’t know anything.”
Even with the strong opposition and the flow of protestors in the streets, the shutdown of the Internet and online censorship paved the way for control for the authoritarian leader- Lukashenko.
Even after the Internet went back up, platforms about the elections and news were inaccessible. Despite all of this, it was expected that the elections would be rigged, as Lukashenko is often regarded as the “last dictator of Europe” ruling the country since 1994. This censorship should not come as a surprise, as in 2015, several websites were blocked, while also apparent DDoS cyberattacks happened on websites that criticized the regime. While previous elections are almost certain to be falsified as well, this election had hope as Belarus had one of the strongest opposition candidates in Svetlana Tikhanouskaya. Yet, even with the strong opposition and the flow of protestors in the streets, the shutdown of the Internet and online censorship paved the way for control for the authoritarian leader- Lukashenko. There is no wonder why Freedom House gave the ‘Freedom of the Net’, a low 38/100 rating.
State of Exception – A pervading power to surveillance
2020 is perhaps the best moment to look at the state of exception and how governments exploit their rights in times of coronavirus in some nations, especially in Africa and SouthEast Asia.
State of exception was first used by the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, then was further elaborated by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher famous for his radical attitudes towards government surveillance and sovereignty.
State of exception can date back to the 18th century when a state of siege was officially put in white and black in French Law of 10 Fructidor An V. At its purest form, this is done with a view to protecting citizens from actual external military threats such as the sieges happened in the French Revolutionary Wars starting from 1792. Agamben further pointed out that state of exception does not merely grant the government or the military the power to announce state of siege or state of exception, the concept also has a political aspect. The political state of siege is an intuitive and objective juridical power established in Napoleon’s decree on December 24, 1811. A political state of siege means that the emperor has the full power to “[…] declare whether or not a city was actually under attack or directly threatened by enemy forces”.
It is, of course, required in some ways when the society is encountering foreign terrorists’ attacks or internal social unrests. Nonetheless, state of exception is an extremely dangerous power. As Agamben illustrated in his work, the state of exception is not only a law of “exception”, but also a routine embedded in the ordinary and day-to-day constitution. State of exception disrupts our daily lives whenever the government wants to, and that is conceivable because extraordinary times calls for extraordinary measures. Nonetheless, as mentioned, when the state of exception suffuses our daily lives, the constitution automatically grants the right to the government to take unnecessary restrictions to control the political state of exception.
In the following section, we will illustrate the jeopardy of deliberate state of exception by examining the case of Hong Kong Chronicles.
Hong Kong Chronicles – Case Study of Internet Censorship
Here I would demonstrate the intertwining association between Internet censorship and state of exception with the case of the banning of Hong Kong Chronicles.
After waves of protests and movements throughout 2019 and 2020, the Chinese Communist Party enacted the National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020. The law is designed to combat anti-China discourses, safeguard national security and to prevent secessions and subversion of terrorist activities just to name a few. The establishment of such is the perfect demonstration of how the state of exception is translated into an ordinary law instead of coping with temporary security threats. Though enlisted with a couple of potential guilty acts in the law, what is illicit and what is not remains rather dubious and subjective.
The NSL does not only hamper the physical freedom of Hong Kong citizens from going on the so-called inciteful protests, provoking alternative political ideologies and more, it also obstructs how we can express opinions on the web.
The NSL demonstrates how a law against potential temporary internal and external threats can be written in the constitution and become a legal norm as illustrated by Agamben. The NSL does not only hamper the physical freedom of Hong Kong citizens from going on the so-called inciteful protests, provoking alternative political ideologies and more, it also obstructs how we can express opinions on the web.
A minor site blockade of Hong Kong Chronicles reveals how state of exception can extend its hands to the Internet. Hong Kong Chronicles, an online platform started in 2019, aims to provide a historical overview of the recent social movements and expose injustice in the sense of police brutality and nationwide political persecution with the help of the Internet.
The site has then attracted much attention, from both the dissidents and the pro-government camps. With reference to the site announcement, it was found that, starting from the evening of 6th January 2021 (HKT), “the website was inaccessible when using the Internet service provided by some ISPs in Hong Kong … (and) we found that some ISPs of Hong Kong has deliberately dropped any connection to our servers … Some of the websites that shares the same IP address was also affected.”
The right to ban this access is exactly granted by article 43 of NSL that the government has the overriding power to ask ISPs to remove unwanted information from the site, or even disconnect accessibility from the users.
Although citizens can still bypass local ISPs by using VPN, the problem lies within the extension of state of exception and how governments are able to take the state of exception as an excuse for mass Internet censorship.
Belarus and Hong Kong are not the odd ones out in our global society, many more other people are suffering from varying degrees of Internet censorships and human rights abuse. It is such an irony that the so-called free web is in fact restricted and manipulated as a tool of surveillance and monitoring. We are yet so far from the realization of our techno-utopianism.
Cover: Sara Kurfeß