Global internet freedom falls for ninth consecutive year, watchdog finds

By on 14/11/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Authorities in 20 countries blocked websites, while 17 cut off access to the internet, according to this year’s Freedom on the Net report. (Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead, courtesy of Free Press, flickr).

Governments around the world are increasingly using social media to manipulate elections and monitor their citizens, leading to digital authoritarianism and causing global internet freedom to decline for the ninth consecutive year, according to a new study.

Freedom on the Net 2019 – released by US independent democracy watchdog Freedom House, and built on research in 65 countries that account for 87% of internet users worldwide – points to both foreign and domestic interference in electoral processes. Of the 30 countries studied that held national elections over the previous year, the research found, in 26 there was evidence of domestic interference by populist governments and their online supporters.

Disinformation was the most commonly used tactic. “Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

However, censorship also remains an issue. Authorities in 20 countries blocked websites, while 17 cut off access to the internet – often in the lead-up to elections, or during protests and civil unrest.

The report found that China is the worst abuser of internet freedom, for the fourth consecutive year. Censorship in the country reached unprecedented levels as the government enhanced its information controls ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. 

The countries with the biggest overall declines in internet freedom since June 2018 were Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, while Ethiopia recorded the largest increase in internet freedom over the same period. According to the report, Iceland is the world’s best protector of internet freedom.

Monitoring citizens’ behaviour

The study found that in 38 countries, political leaders have employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, using fake accounts and bots. 

It also shows that governments from across the democratic spectrum are indiscriminately monitoring citizens’ online behaviour to identify perceived threats – and, in some cases, to silence opposition. Freedom House found evidence of advanced social media surveillance programmes in at least 40 of the countries analysed.

US law enforcement and immigration agencies increasingly monitored social media and conducted warrantless searches of travellers’ electronic devices, with little oversight or transparency, Freedom House researchers found. In a number of cases, the monitoring targeted constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and newsgathering.

“Once reserved for the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, big-data spying tools are making their way around the world,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Advances in AI are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance. Even in countries with considerable safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse.”

The proliferation of sophisticated monitoring tools has reduced people’s ability to freely express themselves and be civically active online. Of the 65 countries assessed, a record 47 had arrested users for political, social, or religious speech, while individuals endured physical violence in retribution for their online activities in at least 31 countries.

“The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media,” Shahbaz said. “Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”

Russian interference in UK politics  

The issue is currently making headlines in the UK, where prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of manipulating government processes to postpone publication of a select committee report until after the 12 December general election.

Compiled by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, the report is understood by the BBC to include evidence from UK intelligence services concerning Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 general election. The government claims it didn’t have time to check that the report wouldn’t jeopardise UK security before the pre-election ‘purdah’ period kicked in, but the committee’s chair Dominic Grieve MP said this was “completely and utterly untrue.”

Though the scale of Russia’s meddling in UK politics is not thought to be as serious as that alleged to have taken place in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Moscow is suspected of using similar tactics in the UK – such as hacking and spreading online propaganda. 

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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