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Human Rights 1 November 2018

Internet Freedom Declines Again, with ‘Polarized Echo Chambers’ Aiding Censorship Efforts

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossTechnology Reporter

The amount of freedom on the global Internet has declined for the eighth straight year, with a group of countries moving toward “digital authoritarianism,” according to a new report from Freedom House.

A number of factors, including the spread of false rumors and hateful propaganda online, have contributed to an Internet that “can push citizens into polarized echo chambers that pull at the social fabric of the country,” said the report, released Thursday. These rifts often give aid to antidemocratic forces, including government efforts to censor the Internet, Freedom House said.

During 2018, authoritarians used claims of fake news and of data breaches and other scandals as an excuse to move closer to a Chinese model of Internet censorship, said the report, cosponsored by the Internet Society.

“China is exporting its model of digital authoritarianism throughout the world, posing a serious threat to the future of free and open Internet,” said Sanja Kelly, director for Internet Freedom at Freedom House. “In order to counter it, democratic governments need to showcase that there is a better way to manage the Internet, and that cybersecurity and disinformation can be successfully addressed without infringing on human rights.”

Thirty-six countries sent representatives to Chinese training programs on censorship and surveillance since January 2017. Another 18 countries have purchased monitoring technology or facial recognition systems from Chinese companies during the same time frame.

“Digital authoritarian is being promoted [by China] as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the Internet as an engine for human liberation,” Freedom House said.

About 71 percent of the Internet’s 3.7 billion users live in countries where technology users were arrested or imprisoned for posting content related to political, social, or religious issues, the report said. Fifty-five percent live in countries where political, social or religious content was blocked online, and 48 percent live in countries were people have been attacked or killed for their online activities since June 2017.

About 47 percent of Internet users live in countries where access to social media or messaging platforms were temporarily or permanently blocked.

Freedom House reviewed the Internet-related policies of 65 countries. Internet freedom declined in 26 countries, including the United States, with the biggest score declines in Egypt and Sri Lanka. Nineteen countries posted gains in Internet freedom, although most of the increases were minor, the organization said.

During the year, 17 governments approved or proposed new laws restricting online media in the name of fighting fake news. Eighteen countries increased surveillance efforts.

The most restrictive countries were China, Iran, Ethiopia, Syria, and Cuba, the group said. Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany, and Australia were the countries with the most Internet freedom. The United States ranked sixth highest, the U.K. seventh, and Japan ninth.

In a dozen countries, declines in Internet freedom were related to elections. In these countries, the lead-up to an election resulted in a spread of disinformation, new censorship, technical attacks, or arrests of government critics, Freedom House said.

In addition to concerns about censorship and the spread of disinformation, the report also decries a loss of online privacy. Even as some countries push for more personal protections, “the unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy,” Freedom House said.

The report offers several recommendations for policymakers, for private companies, and for civil society. Governments should ensure that all Internet-related laws adhere to international human rights laws, and they should enact strong data protection laws, the report recommends.

Members of civil society can work with private companies on fact-checking efforts and can monitor their home countries’ collaboration with Chinese surveillance and censorship efforts, the report says.

In addition to the Internet Society, sponsors of the report include Google, Oath, the New York Community Trust, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Read the Freedom on the Net report.

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