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A new report from Freedom House found that global digital freedom has continued to decline for the eight consecutive year. (Photo: Free Press/Flickr/cc)

Global Internet Freedom Plummets as Governments Use Censorship and Surveillance to Quash Dissent

New Freedom House analysis warns that the rising popularity of China's model of controlling information online threatens democracy worldwide

Jessica Corbett

Countries across the globe are following in the footsteps of the Chinese government, adopting authoritarian digital practices that pose serious threats to democracy, according to a new Freedom House report released Thursday.

For Freedom on the Net 2018 (pdf), more than 70 researchers comprehensively reviewed internet freedom in 65 countries that represent 87 percent of the world's internet users. They documented declines in 26 countries—including the United States under the Trump administration as well as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela—and improvements in only 19 nations.

They found that "disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018."

Researchers found that as "internet controls within China reached new extremes in 2018 with the implementation of the sweeping Cybersecurity Law and upgrades to surveillance technology," Chinese officials also "have held trainings and seminars on new media or information management with representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries."

As Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz told AFP, this pattern of countries shifting toward China's model "poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide."

Writing for the Washington Post's opinion page on Thursday, Abramowitz and Freedom House chairman Michael Chertoff expanded on the dangers of China exporting its digital authoritarianism. While calling on Congress to reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would increase pressure on countries that engage in repressive digital practices to change their ways, they argued that:

...the best way for democracies to stem the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove that there is a better model for managing the internet. We will have to tackle social media manipulation and misuse of data in a manner that respects human rights, while also preserving an internet that is global, free, and secure.

Policymakers should undertake serious efforts to protect critical infrastructure and citizens' personal data from misuse by governments, companies and criminals. Tech companies should dramatically scale up their work with civil-society experts to maximize their own transparency and ensure that their platforms are not being misused to spread disinformation. As the 2016 elections in the United States showed, more-responsible management of social media and stronger privacy rights are needed to prevent malicious actors from exploiting open societies to undermine democracy.

In addition to calling out China for fueling a global decline in internet freedom the new report also details contributions from the United States and the Trump administration. Bolstering findings from Reporters Sans Frontières published earlier this year, Freedom House found that authoritarian governments the world over have co-opted President Donald Trump's favored phrase "fake news" to justify crackdowns on dissent and digital rights.

"In the past year, at least 17 countries approved or proposed laws that would restrict online media in the name of fighting 'fake news' and online manipulation," the report states.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the government has also taken steps over the past year to enable surveillance and limit the open internet. The GOP-controlled Congress reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act, including Section 702, and the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality protections that required internet service providers to treat all content equally.

The report includes a series of recommendations...

For policymakers:

  • Ensure that all internet-related laws and practices adhere to international human rights law and standards;
  • Enact strong data protection laws to provide greater transparency and control over personal data;
  • Include human rights safeguards in national strategies on artificial intelligence (AI);
  • Fund rapid response capacity to counter attacks on internet freedom;
  • Impose sanctions—such as freezing of assets—on foreign tech companies involved in human rights abuses; and
  • In the United States, reintroduce and pass the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA).

For the private sector:

  • Adhere to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • Conduct human rights impact assessments for new markets and commit to doing no harm;
  • Grant users control over their information and ensure that it is not being misused;
  • Ensure fair and transparent content moderation practices;
  • Engage in continuous dialogue with local civil society organizations;
  • Label automated "bot" accounts; and
  • Use internal expertise to help counter Chinese state censorship and protect users.

For civil society:

  • Partner with the private sector on fact-checking efforts;
  • Work with scholars to examine how disinformation spreads and why people are likely to share it;
  • Monitor home countries' collaboration with Beijing and Chinese firms; and
  • Continue to raise awareness about government censorship and surveillance efforts.

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