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Measuring the Internet 27 October 2020

Pandemic Accelerates Loss of Internet Freedoms

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossGuest AuthorTechnology Reporter

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused more than one million deaths worldwide, but it is also accelerating a decline in Internet freedoms across the globe, according to a new report from Freedom House.

The past year has been “especially dismal” for Internet Freedom, according to the Freedom on the Net 2020 report, sponsored by the Internet Society. Political leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to limit access to information and to roll out new surveillance measures, the report says.

At the same time, a slow-motion splintering of the Internet has turned into an “all-out race toward ‘cyber sovereignty,’ with each government imposing its own internet regulations in a manner that restricts the flow of information across national borders,” the report says. Authorities in several countries, including the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, and Turkey have erected new digital borders.

As a result, Internet freedoms have declined for the 10th consecutive year, says the report, which tracks Internet freedom in 65 countries, covering 87 percent of the world’s Internet users. From May 2019 to June 2020, the report found Internet freedom scores dropping in 26 countries, with 22 registering net gains.

The largest declines occurred in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, followed by IndiaEcuador, and Nigeria. A record number of countries deliberately disrupted Internet service.

Meanwhile, Sudan and Ukraine showed the largest improvements, followed by Zimbabwe.

Iceland scored the highest for Internet freedom, followed by Estonia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K. The U.S., with four consecutive years of decline, ranked seventh. For the sixth consecutive year, China posted the worst conditions for Internet freedom, followed by Iran and Syria.

The pandemic-related limits on Internet freedom are discouraging, because they may stay in place after the COVID-19 has faded, said Allie Funk, senior research analystfor technology and democracy at Freedom House.

“History has shown that new state powers acquired during an emergency tend to outlive the original threat,” she said. “We’re concerned that many of the enhanced surveillance capabilities being rolled out will stay long after the health crisis has subsided.”

Funk called on smartphone apps to limit data sharing within the rule of law and for governments to include oversight and accountability in surveillance programs.

The report lays out three major trends hurting Internet freedom in the past year:

  • Authorities pointed to the pandemic as a reason for limiting access to information. In some countries, authorities blocked independent news sites and arrested people on “spurious” charges of spreading false news. However, in many places, it was state officials and supporters spreading false and misleading information “with the aim of drowning out accurate content, distracting the public from ineffective policy responses, and scapegoating certain ethnic and religious communities.”
  • Officials blamed the pandemic for increasing their push for new surveillance powers. The pandemic created an opening “for the digitization, collection, and analysis of people’s most intimate data without adequate protections against abuses,” the report says, and in many cases, the collection has lacked transparency, independent oversight, and avenues for redress.
  • Finally, several countries have pushed for a splintered Internet, with each nation pushing for its own sovereign version. “Rather than protecting users, the application of national sovereignty to cyberspace has given authorities free rein to crack down on human rights while ignoring objections from local civil society and the international community,” the report says.

The report contains several recommendations for policymakers, civil society, and private companies. It calls on government policymakers to reject undue restrictions on access to information and free expression.

“Governments should support and maintain access to the internet and refrain from banning social media and messaging platforms,” the report says. “While such services may present genuine societal and national security concerns, bans constitute an arbitrary and disproportionate response that unduly restricts users’ cultural, social, and political speech.”

Policymakers should also ensure that new surveillance programs meet international human rights standards for necessity, proportionality, and independent oversight. Governments should enact robust data privacy laws and protect encryption, the report recommends.

The report calls on private companies to resist government efforts to shut down connectivity or ban digital services. It also advocates for fair and transparent content moderation.

Web-based companies should prioritize users’ free expression and access to information, particularly for content that can be considered journalism, discussion of human rights, educational materials, or political, social, cultural, religious, and artistic expression, the report recommends.

Web services should also “refrain from relying on automated systems for flagging and removing content without a meaningful opportunity for human review,” the report says.

Understanding the different types of Internet disruptions can make us strong advocates to help reduce them. Read the Public Policy Brief on Internet Shutdowns, which highlights the impact of Internet shutdowns on local people, economy, and infrastructure and provides guidance to policymakers considering an Internet shutdown.

Image by Andersen Jensen via Unsplash

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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