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New Report Reveals Worrying Trend of Continued Decline in Internet Freedom

Reading Time: 7 minutes by on November 11, 2018 Commentary, News, Regulation, Tech
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In a report titled, “Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” an independent human rights watchdog, Freedom House, has uncovered alarming levels of declining Internet freedom across the world.

The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism

Freedom House is a non-governmental organization dedicated to upholding democracy and human rights. The organization has been in existence since 1941 and creates many resources designed to give insights to the varying levels of freedom in different countries.

The “Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism” is an intensive look into the online freedoms of citizens of 65 countries on the globe. The countries covered in the report represent 87 percent of global Internet usage. The report is an annual publication, tracking improvements and declines in Internet freedom conditions each year. The nations studied in the report are selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types. Moreover, in-depth reports on each country are also available.

To create the report, analysts created a 21-question opinion poll that queried respondents on a number of metrics through which it is possible to gauge Internet freedoms. These include Internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues. This is the eighth iteration of the Internet Freedom report and focuses on the period between June 2017 and May 2018.

The report has revealed alarming trends in global Internet freedoms. It has been determined that online freedom has declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018. Additionally, the report found that while the Internet was initially a tool for mass communication and allowed many people across the world to have unbridled access to information, it has since turned into a tool for disinformation and propaganda. Moreover, many governments are favoring digital authoritarianism and are taking significant steps to make this a reality.

Destabilizing Governance and Democracy

The Internet is a double-edged sword and is very dependent on the motives of the person using the tool. While many resources are indicating how the internet can be used by individuals to commit crimes against others such as credit card fraud or revenge porn, Internet abuse is even more alarming when it is committed by large corporations.

Corporations have access to significant amounts of data that they can use to manipulate citizens and destabilize their democratic processes. Interestingly, the inverse is true as well as the Internet has been used to bring about the end of dictatorships as was witnessed in the Arab Spring. However, in the past year, the internet was used severely as a tool by malicious actors to affect the democratic processes of sovereign nations negatively.

Mark Zuckerberg, the creator, and chief executive of Facebook, was summoned by the U.S. Congress to answer questions about the role of the social media site in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg gave his testimony in April 2018, revealing a pervasive data breach which left personal data of over 87 million individuals exposed to Cambridge Analytica.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a significant moment in 2018 when it became clear that the organization had illegally used people’s private data to exert undue influence especially with regard to elections. The scandal was found to have affected elections in the United States, Mexico, Kenya, as well as the Brexit vote.

Cambridge Analytica is not the only force using people’s personal data to influence electoral outcomes. The report shows this is a trend that is continuing to gain steam, with countries even using it as a tool against other countries. “Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters,” the report states.

These data breaches take advantage of the simmering tensions between different groups in the countries affected, emphasizing differences, sometimes with deadly consequences. Unfortunately, in many instances, online disagreements escalated to physical violence in reality. The report says:

“Over the past 12 months in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, false rumors and hateful propaganda that were spread online incited jarring outbreaks of violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Such rifts often serve the interests of anti-democratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states, which have actively encouraged them through content manipulation.”

The consensus for the period studied is that the Internet was misused to create polarized echo chambers which further emphasized contrasting opinions, negatively affecting the fabric of society, and generally increasing hostilities and suspicions between people.

A Scorecard: How Did Countries Fair?

Out of the 65 countries surveyed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017, compared with only 19 that registered net improvements. The biggest score declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

China once again topped the list of countries with the lowest levels of Internet freedoms. Human rights abuses in the Asian country have long been suspected, but the report was able to substantiate news of widespread Internet and technology-enabled infringement of rights.

A graphic showing how China attacks Internet

(Source: Freedom House)

The country centralizes its Internet policy within the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC),  which gets its mandate from the Cybersecurity Law. The law requires network operators and social media companies to register users under their real names, as well as local and foreign companies work to “immediately stop transmission” of restricted content. Moreover, the directive compels all companies to ensure that all data about Chinese users is hosted within the country to ensure the government has adequate controls.

Additionally, the government continues to amend the Cybercrime Law, increasing surveillance and decreasing personal freedoms at an unprecedented rate. Beijing adds “hundreds of new directives—an average of nearly one every two days—to fine-tune what netizens can and cannot do online.” Authorities also cracked down on the use of VPNs to circumvent the Great Fire Wall, leading Apple to delete hundreds of the services from its local app store. Moreover, the highly criticized social credit system, which rates citizens’ “trustworthiness” by combining data on their online and offline behavior, is already being used by the state to victimize local activists.

While these are all worrying developments, there are two developments in China that human rights groups are raising the alarm against. Beijing greatly increased its state surveillance, utilizing superior facial recognition technology, especially in minority areas:

“In the western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Uighur Muslim minority, facial recognition technology and other advanced tools are being used to monitor the local population and thwart any actions deemed to harm public order or national security.”  

Moreover, China is using its surveillance machine to hold people for non-violent activities illegally: “Leaked documents and other evidence revealed in August suggested that as many as a million Muslims may be held in internment camps in Xinjiang, where they endure a ‘reeducation’ process meant to forcibly indoctrinate them. Many detainees are held as a result of their nonviolent online activities.”

The second alarming development is the country’s plans to expand its model to other countries. China held extensive seminars and conferences, secretive in nature, which are designed to teach other nations how to control its citizens and their actions online. An example is the 2017 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen.

As part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an international development strategy focused on infrastructure projects that enhance Chinese trade and influence in the host countries, China “is cultivating media elites and government ministers around the world to create a network of countries that will follow its lead on internet policy.” In fact, out of the 65 countries covered in this survey, 36 nations have held training and seminars on “information management systems” with representatives from China. 

The East African country of Kenya saw a decline in its score, moving from free to partly free. The country passed a Cybercrime Law passed in May 2018 which increased the penalty for publishing “false or fictitious information to ten years in prison if the action results in panic or is likely to discredit the reputation of a person.” The law was passed after widespread manipulations and disinformation campaigns during the 2017 elections.

While this may seem like a good response, the bill came under fire as it could be used by the political class to criminalize journalists and whistleblowers. Following an appeal by an association of bloggers, the bill was found to be unconstitutional and was suspended pending further review. However, the country has witnessed an increase in surveillance with reports of arrests of dissenting voices under the guise of hate speech.

Malaysia saw an increase in its overall score following its election of a prime minister with progressive views. The prime minister promised to rescind a “fake news” law which was instituted by the former prime minister Najib Razak. Razak and his administration abused the law to curtail the free speech of Malaysians. Additionally, the predecessor attempted to sway the elections using the law. The new prime minister Mahathir Mohamad successfully repealed the fake news law, restoring free speech to his citizens.

Egypt’s scorecard declined as the country witnessed major crackdowns on dissenting voices. The state blocked over 500 websites in the run-up to the general election, many of which belonged to watchdog and human rights organizations. Additionally, women in Egypt attempting to participate in the global MeToo movement found themselves at the wrong end of the law. After uploading videos detailing their sexual assault, two women were sentenced to eight years in prison because of what the state called “spreading false information to harm public security.”

Similarly, following pockets of violence in communal riots in Sri Lanka, the state removed access to social media platforms for two days. The riots began in March and resulted in at least two deaths. The riots were tinged with anti-muslim rhetoric fueled by rumors and misinformation disseminated through online platforms, especially social media sites. Following the riots, the state declared a state of emergency granting the government and its institution’s far-reaching powers, many of which curtailed freedoms. As a result, Sri Lanka’s score dropped in comparison to its performance in the prior year.

The E.U. saw a major climb on its scorecard following its increased protections of user privacy after passing the General Data Protection law on May 25, 2018?. The directive conferred E.U. citizens with greater rights over their Internet data. Conversely, the U.S.’ score declined following the repeal of the rules that guaranteed net neutrality. Additionally, the U.S. renewed the authority of  the FISA Act “thereby missing an opportunity to reform surveillance powers that allow the government to conduct broad sweeps in search of non-US targets and routinely collect the personal communications of Americans in the process.” Lastly, online environments in the U.S. continued to be hotbeds of disinformation and hyper-partisan content.

Venezuela and Cambodia both dropped in Internet freedoms as they prepared for their general elections. Both governments passed laws which allowed them to arrest people with differing opinions posted on online forums.

The report states, “Of the 19 countries with overall score improvements, two—Armenia and the Gambia—earned upgrades in their internet freedom status.” Armenia rose from Partly Free to Free after citizens successfully used the Internet to fuel the Velvet Revolution in April. Similarly, Gambia jumped from Not Free to Partly Free, after longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh was forced from office. Another marked improvement is Ethiopia, whose new prime minister set in motion major positive changes for the personal freedoms of the country’s citizens.

Why Is Internet Freedom Essential?

Securing Internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting society. Freedom on the Internet is imperative to social, economic, political, and financial growth. The Internet has become the public sphere and citizens should be allowed to express themselves online freely.

If governments can exert an undue influence of the Internet, citizens will lack a forum to speak on shared values, debate policy, as well as to peacefully settle intra-societal disputes. As the report reiterates, “Democracy also requires a protected private sphere. The unrestrained and largely unexamined collection of personal data inhibits one’s right to be let alone, without which peace, prosperity, and individual freedom—the fruits of democratic governance—cannot be sustained or enjoyed.”

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