Internet freedom on the decline in US and globally, study finds

The study cited a lack of regulation in the domestic tech industry, and the rise of authoritarian agencies abroad

Online freedom is continuing to decline globally, according to a new study, with governments increasingly cracking down on user speech and misinformation on the rise.

The report from Freedom House, a Washington DC-based democracy advocacy group, found internet freedom declined for the fifth year in a row in the US and the 11th year internationally – for two distinct reasons.

Domestically, the lack of regulation in the tech industry has allowed companies to grow beyond reproach and misinformation to flourish online. Abroad, authoritarian governments have harnessed their tight control of the internet to subdue free expression.

Freedom House cited a growing lack of diversity among sources of online information in the US that allowed conspiracies and misinformation to rise, an issue that was gravely underscored during the 2020 elections and the 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.

“The spread of false and conspiracist content about the November 2020 elections shook the foundations of the American political system,” the report said.

The yearly study, which has been published since 1973, uses a standard index to measure internet freedom by country on a 100-point scale. It asks questions about internet infrastructure, government control and obstacles to access, and content regulation. Countries are scored on a scale of 100 points with higher numbers considered more “free”.

The report called measures taken by Joe Biden since his election “promising” for internet freedom, citing the reversal of a Trump administration order to halt transactions between US individuals and Chinese social media companies as beneficial.

Meanwhile, global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year, with more governments arresting users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before. Officials in at least 20 countries suspended internet access, and 20 regimes blocked access to social media platforms, the report said.

The biggest declines were seen in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda. In Uganda, internet freedom fell by seven points after pro-government social media accounts flooded the online environment with manipulated information preceding the January 2021 elections. In August 2020 in Belarus, government forces cracked down on election unrest by restricting access to the internet and surveilling activists online.

The report called the Chinese government “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom”, citing new legislation criminalizing certain expressions online and draconian prison terms issued to activists for online dissent - including an 18-year sentence against one activist for distributing a paper criticizing the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, officials in India pressured Twitter to remove protest-related and critical commentary and to stop flagging manipulated content shared by the ruling party.

The report further showed governments are clashing with technology companies on users’ rights, with authorities in at least 42 countries pursuing new rules for platforms on content, data, and competition over the past year.

Specifically, in India, officials pressured Twitter to remove posts critical of the ruling party. Authorities in Nigeria blocked access to Twitter after the platform removed incendiary posts by the country’s president. President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey repeatedly accused tech companies of “digital fascism” for their refusal to comply with provisions in the country’s new social media law.

Despite these issues, the report said legislation to address abuses of tech companies has been limited. It found that while 48 countries have pursued regulatory actions in the past year, little of that legislation has the potential to make meaningful change.

“In the high stakes battles between governments and tech companies, human rights are the main casualties,” said Allie Funk, senior research analyst who co-wrote the report, in a news briefing on Monday.

Contributor

Kari Paul

The GuardianTramp

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