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Technology 28 December 2018

The Year in Review: Governments Try to Restrict Free Speech Online and Break Encryption

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossTechnology Reporter

In 2018, the Internet saw concerted government efforts to restrict free speech on the Internet – some in the name of fighting “fake news” – and to compromise encryption on devices and messaging apps.

Can the government decide what’s fake news? Several countries either passed or explored laws intended to combat so-called fake news and online disinformation. In some cases, the laws contained significant prison time for those who create or disseminate fake news.

The problem, of course, is that the government decides what’s fake and what’s legitimate news. Free speech advocates have warned that the anti-fake news laws amount to censorship, with government officials playing content gatekeepers.

In Malaysia, the fake news law was quickly used to investigate an opponent of the administration in power. Malaysia repealed its anti-fake news law about four months after it passed, when opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, one of the first people invested under the law, became prime minister.

In November, France passed its own anti-fake news law, allowing judges to determine fake news and order its removal. Distributors of news determined to be fake can face one year of prison time. India also considered but abandoned a fake news law earlier this year.

Fighting fake news without new laws: Meanwhile, several groups have launched efforts to fight the very real problem of fake news, some using technology and some using human investigations.

Many groups have recognized fake news as a serious challenge, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to fight it, or how to even define it. Nevertheless, Mozilla cited fake news and a loss of privacy online as major concerns in its Internet Health Report released in April. Many people “have started to argue that technology companies are becoming too dominant; social media has been weaponized as a tool of harassment; our personal information has been stolen; and democratic processes have been undermined by the manipulation of online media and ads,” the report said.

With lawmakers and other groups focused on fake news during much of the year, Facebook faced scrutiny for its role in allowing the sharing of disinformation during the 2016 U.S. election. Facebook executives ended up testifying before the U.S. Congress in April and in August and before European policymakers in November, with critics accusing the social media outlet of looking the other way as fake news creators flooded its pages.

No Internet for you: While some countries explored anti-fake news laws, others used an even more blunt instrument to block the distribution of information they didn’t like. Several countries shut down Internet access, mobile networks, or individual communications apps during 2018, with the excuse, in some cases, being that users were spreading fake news.

Among the countries shutting down Internet access during the year:

It’s no wonder that Freedom House determined that the amount of freedom on the global Internet declined for the eighth straight year, with a group of countries, led by China, moving toward “digital authoritarianism.”

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. These rifts often give aid to antidemocratic forces, including government efforts to censor the Internet, Freedom House suggested.

Governments push for holes in encryption: While China and a handful of other authoritarian-minded countries worked to censor large parts of the Internet, countries with a longer history of free speech also took steps against user privacy. The United States, United Kingdom and other Western nations pushed tech companies to build encryption workarounds into their devices and apps.

In December, the Australian Parliament passed a law that requires tech companies to give law enforcement agencies there access to encrypted communications. Many privacy groups and tech companies protested, saying encryption is an essential part of Internet users’ efforts to protect their data against cybercriminals.

Meanwhile, Russia jumped on the anti-encryption bandwagon by requiring messaging apps used in the country to turn over their encryption keys to authorities. Russia ordered messaging app Telegram to comply early in the year, but Telegram basically told the government there to take a hike.

Once in a while, governments push for privacy: While some governments looked to invade privacy, others attempted to protect their citizens. In May, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, a set of wide-ranging privacy rules, went into effect, prompting businesses on both sides of the Atlantic to post new cookie warnings on their websites. GDPR goes much farther than cookie notifications, however, with rules allowing Internet users to limit how their personal information is collected and shared.

With the U.S. Congress so far unable to pass a comprehensive privacy law, the California State Legislature took matters into its own hands by passing its own legislation in June. The California Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into effect in 2020, will require most businesses to tell consumers how they’re using their data and allow consumers to opt of data-sharing agreements a business may have. The California bill has fewer rules to protect privacy than the GDPR, but some advocates called it a good start.

Read “Splintering the Internet: The Unintended Consequence of Regulation” and learn what you can do so that we #DontBreakTheInternet.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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