Internet freedom in sharp decline, watchdog warns

By on 24/09/2021 | Updated on 27/09/2021
Freedom House warns that governments are increasingly controlling people’s access to the internet, and attacking those who use the web to protest or organise

A lack of regulation and a rise in authoritarian government control has led to an “unprecedented assault on free expression online”, with global internet freedom declining for the eleventh consecutive year, a campaigning think tank has warned.

The annual assessment of the world’s internet freedom, produced by global non-profit Freedom House, charts a distinct shift in power from tech companies to governments between June 2020 and May 2021. Of the 70 countries it assessed, it found that governments in 48 of those have initiated legal or administrative action against technology companies. The US-based non-profit organisation warns that the push to regulate the industry – often to curb legitimate problems such as online harassment or misuse of data – is being exploited by some governments to subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data.

In its report, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House says that some regulation imposes “excessively broad censorship” on users and is designed to suppress content critical of the government. Other rules have forced tech companies to collect private data, meaning that users’ online activity is being monitored under regulations that lack “democratic safeguards” such as judicial oversight or public accountability. The watchdog says it has also seen a similar pattern in data management, where a growing number of new laws “facilitate government surveillance” by mandating that user data servers are based within the country.

This new rush to regulation correlates with an historic crackdown on “freedom of expression” on the internet, Freedom House argues. It estimates that of the 3.8 billion people with access to the internet, three quarters live in countries where users are arrested or imprisoned for posting content on political or religious issues, while 72% live in countries where people have been killed or attacked for their online activities since June 2020. Governments have suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 blocked social media platforms.

More info, less freedom

“The rights of internet users around the world, especially the rights to free expression and privacy, are being massively violated as a result of recent state actions,” said the president of Freedom House, Michael J. Abramowitz. “Instead of using regulation to curb the immense power of tech companies, many governments are wielding it for their own repressive purposes.”

The internet freedom of 30 countries declined significantly between June 2020 and May 2021, the watchdog found. Myanmar, in south-east Asia, saw the biggest decline in online freedom since the project began in 2009, after its military launched a coup in February 2021. It cut off the internet every night between February and April, and suspended mobile services entirely from March. As people started to protest, the military junta seized control of the telecommunications infrastructure. It blocked social media, removed the licenses of independent online news organisations, and forced service providers to hand over personal data.

China ranks as the worst country for internet freedom under Freedom House’s metrics, for the 7th year in a row. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of its most censored topics, and Chinese authorities imprisoned users for “online dissent”, independent reporting and even everyday communications. The country has also cracked down on tech companies, claiming they were abusing data protection.

The US saw a proliferation of fake news and misleading information around the November 2020 presidential election, leading to a further decline in internet freedom for the 5th consecutive year. However, the watchdog does note a positive shift in approach from President Joe Biden: his administration has increased funds for broadband connectivity in the US, and rescinded former President Trump’s attempt to quash the use of Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat.  

The report warns that the absence of a shared global vision for a free internet is creating “fragmentation” with different states enacting vastly different rules, some for nefarious reasons. “Democratic governments should pursue well-crafted regulations while protecting people’s rights to express themselves, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account,” said Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.

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