Internet freedom continues to decline around the world, a new report says

By Casey Newton

Digital authoritarianism is on the rise, according to a new report from a group that monitors internet freedoms. Freedom House, a pro-democracy think tank, said today that governments are seeking more control over users’ data while also using laws nominally intended to address “fake news” to suppress dissent. It marked the eighth consecutive year that Freedom House found a decline in online freedoms around the world.

“The clear emergent theme in this report is the growing recognition that the internet, once seen as a liberating technology, is increasingly being used to disrupt democracies as opposed to destabilizing dictatorships,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, in a call with reporters. “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 criminalize the spread of false information.”

In the United States, internet freedom declined in 2018 due to the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules. Other countries fared much worse — 17 out of 65 surveyed had adopted laws restricting online media. Of those, 13 prosecuted citizens for allegedly spreading false information. And more countries are accepting training and technology from China, which Freedom House describes as an effort to export a system of censorship and surveillance around the world.

Of course, there are tradeoffs between freedom and security. The report is critical of Sri Lanka and India, which have periodically shut down or limited access to the internet in response to the outbreak of ethnic and religious conflict. In both cases, citizens were being murdered by mobs that had encountered misinformation spread through social media.

“Cutting off internet service is a draconian response, particularly at a time when citizens may need it the most, whether to dispel rumors, check in with loved ones, or avoid dangerous areas,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy. “While deliberately falsified content is a genuine problem, some governments are increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a pretense to consolidate their control over information and suppress dissent.”

The report also found:

  • Governments in 18 countries increased state surveillance between June 2017 and now, with 15 considering new “data protection” laws, which can require companies to store user data locally and potentially make it easier for governments to access.
  • Governments in 32 countries used paid commentators, bots, and trolls in an effort to manipulate online conversations. WhatsApp and other closed messaging apps are becoming more popular targets for manipulation, the authors write.
  • There were bright spots. The authors credit Armenian citizens’ use of social media, communications apps, and live-streaming services for making possible a peaceful revolution earlier this year. And in Ethiopia, a new prime minster released bloggers and activists from prison and pledged to ease restrictions on online communication.