Internet freedom declines as China exports online censorship
Freedom House – a US-based NGO – has released its annual Freedom of the Net report, which has found that internet freedom is declining in many countries, often relating to democratic events.
The organisation was established in 1941 to research and advocate for political freedom and human rights. It publishes three annual reports: ‘Freedom in the World’, which monitors political freedom; ‘Freedom of the Press’, which looks at censorship and intimidation of journalists; and ‘Freedom of the Net’, which looks at the state of Internet freedom. The ‘Freedom of the Net’ report considers a diverse range of countries and accounts for factors such as filtering, manipulation and blocking of websites, diversity of online news, infrastructural and economic barriers to access, government and business control over internet access, and violation of internet user rights.
The 2018 report has found that governments are now tightening control over the internet and using the claim of “fake news” to erode trust, democracy and suppress opposition. 2018 is the eighth consecutive year to find an overall decline in global internet freedom.
Of the 65 countries assessed in the report (representing 87 per cent of the world’s internet users), 26 experienced a decline in internet freedom. Almost half of these cases were related to elections.
Notably, the report found that in the US had suffered a decline in internet freedom: “Pervasive disinformation and hyperpartisan content had a significant impact on internet freedom in the [US] over the past year.” Freedom House pointed to popular fake news stories favouring 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump over his rivals – heavily pushed by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency – which persist two years after the election. It also mentioned threatening and racist harassment of journalists online, and the controversial rollback of Obama-era net neutrality regulations by the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The authors also found that Chinese internet censors had become “more brazen” in assisting other government authorities to control access of online information to their citizens. Chinese officials had held meetings relating to information management with representatives of 36 of the 65 countries assessed in the report. Some of these countries – including Vietnam, Uganda and Tanzania – subsequently introduced new cyber-security measures.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has denied the accusations. Last year, the Cyberspace Administration of China – the government internet censor – rejected Freedom House’s report, which placed it at the bottom of the world internet freedom rankings.
Meanwhile, Chinese technology companies are estimated to be providing internet equipment to at least 38 of the 65 countries assessed.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael J Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
At least 17 countries had introduced or proposed laws that would restrict information online in order to fight disinformation, while 18 countries had increased online surveillance, such as by weakening encryption in order to gain citizens’ data. According to Adrian Shahbaz, research director at Freedom House, some governments were justifying these policies increasing censorship and surveillance by arguing that they were necessary in order to combat disinformation.
“This year has proved that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilise dictatorships,” said Shahbaz. “Online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly poisoned the digital sphere, while the unbridled collection of personal data is breaking down traditional notions of privacy.”
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