How Free Is the Internet, Really?

By Anne Miller, Contributor

Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, and a reason for social ostracism, like a teacher who recently came out of the closet — and promptly lost his job — found out the hard way.

Even the internet isn’t always a safe place to gather and find community for LGBT and similarly disenfranchised groups, not when IP addresses can be tracked and government surveillance is a known entity. Unless, of course, you know how to take certain precautions.

Tawanda Mugari called it his “passion and love” to teach those whose safety could be compromised by lax internet security how to exist safely online. He is the development technologist and co-founder of Digital Society of Zimbabwe (DSZ), a nonprofit that seeks to educate people and organizations throughout southern Africa on privacy usage and options.

A Powerful Partnership

The DSZ started as a dream about eight years ago, but took off when Mugari met Pepe Borras, founder of the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), a project dedicated to privacy and the internet.

“Many in the internet freedom field feel isolated due to the impersonal nature of their work and the risks involved,” Borras said. “They face stressors from internal and external sources, including censorship, online surveillance and overt harassment.”

A free and open internet, and the free flow of information, depends on free and open networks of communication. Limit the networks, and you limit the key ways that people share information and help develop new ideas.

“More than ever, technology builders, civil society organizations, journalists, digital security trainers, and human rights defenders working on these issues need to meet each other in a safe and supportive environment,” Borras said.

The IFF provides that safe space for these gatekeepers and users to connect and learn. “There are very minimum resources available, especially in Africa,” Mugari said, referring to specific issues such as a lack of data bandwidth, and also resources and a network for learning more about what is private, what’s not, and how to address personal privacy issues.

“Internet platforms are asking to get full access to our fridge in order to make a sandwich, and then we get the sandwich, but they get the whole fridge.”

— Pepe Borras, founder of the Internet Freedom Festival

This ability to connect with others around issues of security is the biggest reason DSZ has grown and, today, has trained more than 100 individuals to go back and inform their own networks about privacy options.

For example, Mugari might lead a handful of leaders in a local organization, and those leaders would then disseminate these lessons throughout their offices, without needing to use more of Mugari’s time.

Today, DSZ has worked with people in South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, but it is through the IFF connections that the organization has reached well beyond Zimbabwe. “We have been in the network of IFF for the fifth year,” Mugari said. “That means we have built a relationship with everyone for the past five years, and they have seen our work.”

The upcoming festival will be held over a week in Valencia, Spain — April 1-5 in 2019. There’s no entrance fee, although attendees do need to sign up for tickets, and they go fast. Valencia is Borras’ hometown, and also meets the criteria of being a relatively inexpensive city in a country where visa issues for travelers are less likely to be an issue than, say, the U.S. Beyond the in-person festival, the IFF sponsors fellowships and offers networking opportunities around internet privacy throughout the year.

In the U.S. especially, the conversation around online privacy in the public sphere often revolves around theft and other illegal acts — can someone hack your logins and your bank accounts and your payment apps and take your money, or take your identify for similarly nefarious purposes?

The IFF, and the organization Borras has built around it, seeks to tackle two major aspects of online privacy that may not evoke dramatic (monetary-driven) headlines, but remain serious issues that should, perhaps, spark more dinner-table discourse.

The Whole Fridge

First, there’s the issue of how much personal data we give away to the companies who create the services we use. For example, consider how much Facebook knows about us and our friends, what we like, where we live, what we read, and what we spend money on (as TechCrunch notes, it’s pretty much everything). Without considering the implications, many users log on and, by doing so, offer up their information for free that the social media service can then monetize.

“Internet platforms are asking to get full access to our fridge in order to make a sandwich, and then we get the sandwich, but they get the whole fridge,” Borras said. “They get the chicken and the vegetables and rice — they get the paella, at our expense, and we just get a sandwich.”

Secondly, privacy, depending on where a person resides, can carry a much heavier penalty for certain minority groups. Like in Zimbabwe, members of the gay community could risk being outed and losing jobs, and in some places, even lose their lives if the government or someone with malicious intent tracked their communication. The same goes for activists in countries with fewer civil liberty laws‚ where political agitators can infiltrate groups, track texts, and even make arrests — silencing peaceful protest.

“For us, the human rights side of things comes first and foremost, because the [United Nations’] Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be above all things,” Borras said. “But then, the internet is something that is in constant evolution, so if we don’t sit down and discuss and evolve as citizens of the world about the future of the internet we want and the future of the digital lives we want, we’re just going to keep agreeing and accepting conditions instead of making the conditions.”

This rings especially true for journalists. “The defense of privacy is the defense of a free press,” Borras explained. “If I cannot keep my sources safe, if I cannot keep my documents safe, I can no longer be a journalist and serve as a journalist. In this new digital world, I need that digital privacy. When governments try to ban encryption, they are affecting something as important as free press.”

In the five years since the IFF began, the conversation around privacy has shifted, Borras said. “We’ve moved from people being interested to people asking what to do,” he explained. Still, “there are no clear concise answers.”

The IFF team works with groups like DSZ to help find safe spaces online, create local access, and educate groups as to how they can use the services, even in places like Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where Mugari said data is prohibitively expensive, bandwidth is at a premium, and not everyone is comfortable using English-language-based apps.

The IFF helps with connections, for example, introducing Mugari to leaders in other nations who have started sending his group work. And it’s through IFF that Mugari also has learned of some of the latest options he can take back home. For Mugari, some of this work is as simple as explaining how governments can track IP addresses, teaching people about the vulnerabilities of SMS text messages, and then introducing them to more secure apps like Signal.

As the Internet makes the globe feel smaller — Mugari was interviewed via a Brooklyn-to-Zimbabwe Skype call — it can be hard to remember that in many areas of the world, the networks and tools are still in developmental stages. What comes next has the potential to come out of those IFF privacy connections.