Five predictions for digital rights in 2016

Every January, I sit down with our team to take a hard look at digital rights trends, a process that’s made easier because it’s also when we evaluate submissions to RightsCon, our annual gathering of activists, governments, technologists, and tech companies. It’s a privilege to receive the more than 300 proposals for sessions ranging from censorship in Iran to securing the Internet of Things. Here’s what we see trending in 2016:

1.) Misguided government attacks on encryption will continue.

Governments are continuing to fear-monger about how encryption supports terrorism, despite little evidence and in ignorance of the clear benefits of encryption, which range from safeguarding the privacy of vulnerable communities to enabling the digital economy to thrive. Yet spurred on by fear and bottomless counter-terrorism budgets, officials are still trying to mandate “backdoors” in technology that would allow law enforcement to read the contents of messages and communications. These vulnerabilities would also empower criminals and repressive states to inflict significant harm and undermine human rights. We joined more than 200 groups and experts from around the world, including tech companies, to encourage global leaders to stand with security. You can join too at SecuretheInternet.org and we’ll be following up at our Crypto Summit 2.0, an insider track at RightsCon.

2.) Countering violent extremism and harassment online will dominate discussions on free expression and tech company responsibility.

Marginalized communities, including women, LGBTI people, and minorities, continue to face harassment in online spaces, and numerous voices are calling on companies and governments to do more to make the internet safer and more inclusive of diverse identities. Companies have responded by changing their terms of service, but it’s undeniable that the internet is not always welcoming of different viewpoints. We do our part through our 24-hour Digital Security Helpline, which provides users at risk with a host of services, including secure communication tools, and helps when their accounts are deactivated on social media networks by trolls and other malicious actors.

Similarly, governments are increasingly concerned that terrorist networks are using the internet, and social media in particular, to spread propaganda and support the recruitment of potential terrorists to attack innocent people. U.S. President Obama referred to this trend during his State of the Union address, just a few days after sending top officials to meet with executives from tech companies in Silicon Valley and pressure them to act. Yet it’s hard to envision a path forward that doesn’t trample on our privacy and other human rights, whether through mass surveillance or turning tech companies into deputies of the government with no accountability. Countering violent extremism, or CVE, represents a new battleground that could drastically reconfigure the responsibilities of companies and place increasing pressure on civil society.

3.) Stakeholders will launch major internet connectivity projects in attempting to bridge the digital divide.

We saw important gains for connecting more people to the internet in 2015, with the inclusion of access to the internet in the Sustainable Development Goals, and the conclusion of the World Summit on the Information Society in December. Universal access to the internet is a paramount goal that we share. Without the internet, billions lack access to the 21st century’s essential global forum for expression, communication, information, innovation, and wealth creation. In 2016, we’ll be determining what kind of internet the next four billion will connect to. Will the internet be free and open as it has largely been over the last three decades, or will new users join an increasingly tracked, surveilled, censored, insecure, and restricted platform that violates their basic rights? Will companies continue to promote products that violate Net Neutrality? And will India, the U.S., and the E.U. press for an open, nondiscriminatory internet in rule making? Whatever happens, civil society will continue to drive conversations to promote an open, equitable, and sustainable internet access.

4.) State and non-state actors will escalate their attacks on journalists and marginalized groups. 

States have stepped up their attacks on civil society groups and more journalists were killed in 2015 than ever before. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report showed worrying backsliding for free expression in many countries around the world. In Egypt this month, the government systematically rounded up activists based on their Facebook posts, and police stopped passers-by on the streets and demanded to look at their most recent social media posts and contacts, a frightening new form of digital stop-and-frisk. Activists and marginalized groups need our collective help more than ever. There are creative solutions that can help protect people from harm through circumvention and anonymity, but top-down threats remain in Bangladesh, Turkey, and beyond, whether for LGBTI people or for bloggers who profess to be secular in the face of Islamist movements. We’ll continue to look for solutions to protect human rights in 2016.

5.) We’ll see more internet shutdowns than ever before.

We recorded nearly 20 internet shutdowns in 2015. The blocking, throttling, and disruption of messaging apps, networks, or internet services plunges entire societies into darkness. Victims can’t access emergency services and businesses are cut off from the digital economy. Worse, security forces often target activists and protesters when they know their actions won’t be reported or recorded on social media. We’ve seen these measures grow more sophisticated, and China has promulgated draft rules that would legalize shutdowns in the country — even though they clearly violate international law. We sadly expect to see more shutdowns in 2016, but we’ll be working to develop technical solutions to circumvent them, and policy solutions to end their use by states altogether.


As technology swiftly changes, each year brings new challenges and opportunities in digital rights. But we can’t kowtow to the latest new gadgets or apps, because human rights don’t change — they’re universal and indivisible. Join us in developing durable solutions to these pressing problems at RightsCon in March or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to help shape the conversation. And then let’s check in in 12 months and see how these predictions fared.