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MIT Technology Review

Governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict internet freedom

A report by think tank Freedom House warned that the US's standing as a global leader for internet freedom is increasingly under threat.

October 14, 2020
Flickr | Backbone Campaign

The news: Global internet freedom has declined for the 10th year in a row as governments use the coronavirus pandemic as cover to restrict people’s rights, according to a report by the think tank Freedom House. Its researchers assessed 65 countries, accounting for 87% of internet users worldwide. The report covers the period from June 2019 to May 2020, but some key changes took place when the pandemic struck.  

The pandemic effect: In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a reason to introduce sweeping new restrictions on speech and arrest online critics. In 28, governments blocked websites or forced outlets, users, or platforms to censor information in order to suppress critical reporting, unfavorable health statistics, or other content related to the coronavirus. In at least 45 of the countries studied, people were arrested as a result of their online posts about covid-19.

Many countries are also conducting increasingly sweeping surveillance of their populations, with contact tracing or quarantine compliance apps particularly ripe for abuse in places like Bahrain, India, and Russia. In China, the authorities used high- and low-tech tools not just to manage the outbreak of the coronavirus, but also to stop people from sharing information and challenge the official narrative. 

Other non-pandemic-related findings:

  • The US’s standing as a global leader for internet freedom is increasingly under threat. Internet freedom declined in the US for the fourth consecutive year, the report concluded. Federal and local law enforcement agencies have adopted new surveillance tools in response to historic protests against racial injustice, and several people faced criminal charges for online activity related to the demonstrations. The report directly criticized President Donald Trump for issuing draconian executive orders on social-media regulation, and for helping to create and spread dangerous disinformation. 
  • The “splinternet” is well and truly on its way. The US, India, and Pakistan have recently banned Chinese-owned apps, helping to legitimize China’s stance that each state should oversee its own “national internet.” In at least 13 states the internet was fully shut down at some point over the past year, with India leading the pack for internet shutdowns. Russia passed new laws to cut the country off from the global internet during national emergencies. Iran severed international connections to conceal a violent police crackdown amid mass protests. Lawmakers in Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey passed or considered new regulations requiring companies to stop user data from leaving their countries.
  • China was found to be the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth year running. Surprisingly, the report did not mention the use of highly repressive methods China is employing to crack down on the freedoms of the Uighur people both inside the country and beyond.
  • The adoption of new technologies is outpacing our understanding of them. The rollout of facial recognition technology and automated decision-making is happening at a rapid pace, with few safeguards to protect privacy or stop police departments from abusing these sorts of new tools.

What’s needed: The report says, “The internet freedom movement must raise its ambitions from simply demanding policies that respect basic rights, to actually building robust governance structures that enshrine and enforce those protections.” The authors provide a list of recommendations, including calling for policymakers to introduce robust data privacy laws and protect encryption. 

It also calls for them to take steps to ensure that internet connection is accessible and affordable for all, especially in the light of jobs and schooling moving online. The report calls for private companies to ensure “fair and transparent” content moderation while resisting government efforts to ban digital services or shut down internet connectivity. Crucially, it says it’s time for governments to bolster “cyber diplomacy” to defend a free and open internet, coming up with rules to restrict the export of repressive technologies.