Democracy advocate finds internet freedom has declined globally for 11th consecutive year

A non-government organisation says internet freedom globally has deteriorated as more countries have pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, or competition over the past year.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor
Image: Freedom House

Democracy advocate Freedom House has published findings that indicate a growing number of governments are forcing tech businesses to comply with online censorship and surveillance.

The findings were released as part of the non-profit, non-governmental organisation's (NGO) annual Freedom on the Net 2021report [PDF], which found that 48 out of 70 countries covered in the report -- which account for 88% of the world's internet users -- have pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, or competition over the past year.

"While some moves reflected legitimate attempts to mitigate online harms, rein in misuse of data, or end manipulative market practices, many new laws imposed excessively broad censorship and data-collection requirements on the private sector," the report said.

Of specific concern to the NGO was that at least 24 countries have passed or announced new laws or rules governing how platforms treat content, which it worries could lead to increased censorship of political dissent, investigative reporting, and expressions of ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender identity.

According to Freedom House, this has culminated in global internet freedom declining again for the 11th consecutive year, with the greatest deteriorations being in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda.

Freedom House's measurement of internet freedom is done through assessing 21 different indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, it explained.

China, meanwhile, remained as the world's worst abuser of internet freedom, the NGO claimed. This was due to the country introducing new legislation criminalising online expression that insults members of the armed forces, "heroes", and "martyrs", and its continued online censorship.

It also said China's crackdown on tech has been "among the most aggressive" in addressing anti-competitive practices, raising concerns that the government is more interested in reining in the private sector's autonomy and influence, rather than creating fairer markets.

Other statistics unveiled in the report included 80% of countries that were analysed in the report arrested people for their online speech; 64% of those countries' authorities deployed pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions; 41% of countries disconnected internet or mobile networks for political reasons; and 46% of countries blocked or restricted social media platforms, which primarily occurred during protests and elections.

On the surveillance front, authorities in at least 45 of the 70 countries covered by the report are suspected of having access to sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology supplied by companies like NSO Group, Cellebrite, Circles, and FinFisher, Freedom House said.

In providing this warning, the organisation has called for policymakers responsible for drafting data privacy laws to focus on protecting users while preventing greater fragmentation of the internet, such as by ensuring government surveillance programs adhere to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

It also said policymakers should view encryption as being fundamental to cybersecurity, commerce, and human rights, and that weakening encryption would endanger the lives of activists, journalists, and members of marginalised communities.

For other areas of legislation, Freedom House said competition policy should foster innovation that responds to user demand for greater personalisation, security, and interoperability and regulation should ensure that power does not accumulate in the hands of a few dominant actors, whether in government or the private sector.

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