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By Bassel El Mrawed & Liz Shelbred

We are living in a time of unprecedented technological advances and ever-growing access to cyberspaces, impacting multiple aspects of our daily life. 

In many ways, the age of digitalization has empowered grassroots pro-democracy movements. By removing barriers to participation and enabling users to spread information efficiently, social media has proven to be a powerful tool for civil societies operating under authoritarian rule. 

In 2014, Iranian journalist, human rights activist, and now-Human Rights Foundation (HRF) International Council member, Masih Alinejad, launched My Stealthy Freedom, an exemplary social media campaign. Alinejad provided a platform to women inside Iran who shared videos of themselves without hijabs and exposed the abuses of the Iranian morality police. The campaign successfully amplified Iranians’ calls for freedom and change.

While technological changes have the ability to improve lives, they also risk the lives of many more. For more than 54 percent of the global population — over 4 billion people — living under authoritarian regimes, human rights abuses transcend the physical realm into cyberspaces. Authoritarian rulers deploy cyber censorship to silence opposition voices and delegitimize campaigns for freedom. 

For instance, the Taliban shut down more than 231 media outlets after their takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. In Iran, to quell mass protests ignited by Mahsa Amini’s murder, the regime enforced dozens of internet blackouts ranging from mere minutes to 12 days. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Vladimir Putin deemed all independent news reports and public opposition to the war illegal — penalties for spreading “false information” about the war reach as high as 15 years.

It is no coincidence that all countries in “The List of the 13 Internet Enemies” are authoritarian.

These are mere snapshots of why every year on March 12, people around the globe commemorate the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, an online event aimed at highlighting and countering the curtailment of free speech through cyber censorship. Organizations around the world, such as Reporters Without Borders, use this day to recognize online activists and shed light on the worst perpetrators of online censorship.

HRF is a prominent actor in the global movement against cyber censorship and other digital abuses committed by authoritarian regimes. During the 2022 Oslo Freedom Forum, HRF offered office hours with cybersecurity experts from Twitter and Canadian civil society watchdog Citizen Lab. When checking attendees’ phones for spyware, Citizen Lab discovered that Pegasus, a military-grade spyware, had been installed on the phone of Carine Kanimba, the daughter of jailed “Hotel Rwanda” hero and critic of the Rwandan regime Paul Rusesabagina. 

In our effort to halt dictators’ infiltration of cyberspaces, HRF continues to shed light on online repression. This month, HRF is attending the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and hosting a panel, “Dictatorship in the Digital Space,” during which digital security experts and activists will explore strategies to uphold human rights and democracy in the digital age.

This World Day Against Cyber Censorship, HRF honors the efforts of activists and journalists challenging authoritarian surveillance and censorship. HRF also recognizes and celebrates individual achievements toward promoting free expression, whether in person or online. Free speech is the cornerstone of any open and fair society. By defending free expression and uplifting those that risk their lives to expose injustice, we can protect democracy. 

And you, too, can be a part of the global freedom movement! 

Join our community and learn how regimes abuse technology by attending the 2023 Oslo Freedom Forum on June 13-15 in Oslo, Norway. Use the code 15yearsofOFF to receive a 15% discount until March 31.

Liz Shelbred and Bassel El Mrawed are Development Coordinators at the Human Rights Foundation, where they support the organization’s fundraising efforts.