A new report from Freedom House finds that internet freedom around the world is declining for the eighth year running.
The 2018 annual report from internet freedom watchdog Freedom House shows that governments around the world are trying to gain more control over user data while taking advantage of disinformation prevention laws to control dissenting voices.
Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said that there is growing recognition that the internet is increasingly being leveraged to disrupt democracy, rather than take down dictatorial regimes. He added: “Propaganda and disinformation are increasingly poisoning the digital sphere, and authoritarians and populists are using the fight against fake news as a pretext to jail prominent journalists and social media critics, often through laws that criminalise the spread of false information.”
The report examined 65 countries that represent the bulk of the internet users around the world. Of the countries assessed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017, compared to 19 that displayed net improvements. 13 of the countries prosecuted citizens for allegedly spreading false information. Worryingly, 32 governments used paid commentators, bots and trolls to steer digital conversation.
Largest declines in internet freedom
The biggest online freedom declines seen included countries such as Egypt, Cambodia, Kenya, Venezuela and Nigeria. In Cambodia and Venezuela, the declines in internet freedom were due to elections and a rise in censorship and disinformation campaigns. In the latter country, the government passed a law imposing severe prison sentences for inciting “hatred” online.
The repeal of net neutrality and the reauthorisation of government surveillance laws in the US saw internet freedom decline in the country. While the online environment there is still diverse and relatively free, hyper-partisan content and false stories sullied the score.
Digital authoritarianism threatens to grow
More countries are accepting training and technology from China, which Freedom House claims is an effort to spread the country’s notoriously tough internet regime around the world. The report described China’s ‘Great Firewall’ as “alarmingly effective”. It added: “If democracies fail to advance their own principles and interests with equal determination, digital authoritarianism will become an inescapable reality almost by default.”
It was not all negative, though. Armenian citizens successfully used social media and apps to bring about change in the Velvet Revolution in April 2018, while The Gambia saw restrictions on posting content ease a little. Although Ethiopia is still very repressive, a new prime minister moved to reduce intense internet restrictions in the country.
The report added: “Securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy as a whole. Technology should empower citizens to make their own social, economic and political choices without coercion or hidden manipulation.”