Freedom on the internet has declined for the ninth year running, with mass surveillance and political manipulation key contributing factors.

This is according to Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights. For its annual Freedom on the Net study, Freedom House analysed internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, representing 87% of the 3.8 billion people with internet access.

Although the internet has enabled unprecedented connectivity across the globe, often acting as a “level playing field for civic discussion”, it has also been misused, with online freedom “increasingly imperilled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism”, the Freedom House report said.

A rise in the use of surveillance methods online has resulted in an “unprecedented crackdown on fundamental freedoms”, with the authorities in at least 40 out of 65 countries, deploying social media monitoring programmes, often on an “immense scale”.

The report identifies the utilisation of the internet for political interference, from both overseas and domestic actors. It warns that “cross-border influence operations” are becoming increasingly common, with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia all expanding their efforts in this area over the past year.

However, a growing threat of domestic election interference online was also highlighted, with 26 of the 30 countries studied that held national votes over the past year affected by this.

China the biggest suppressor of online freedoms

The use of disinformation to distort opinion online, often from automated “bot” accounts, was identified as a commonly used method, with social media also highlighted as “enabling the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations”.

Of those included in the study, 56% live in countries where political, social, or religious content has been blocked online, with of 47 out of 65 countries analysed arresting users for speaking out on these issues, a record high.

The worst culprit in suppressing online freedom is China for the fourth year in a row, with information control ramped up ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Internet freedom in the United States also declined for the third year, with the report calling on US technology giants to do more to challenge this. It also highlighted the increased monitoring of social media platforms.

“The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”

On the other end of the scale, only 16 countries saw improvements in their internet freedom, with Ethiopia having the biggest improvement and Iceland coming out on top.

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Moving forward Freedom House has warned that technological advances, such as “biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks” could be misused to infringe human rights online.

“Once reserved for the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, big-data spying tools are making their way around the world,” said Shahbaz.  “Advances in AI are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance. Even in countries with considerable safeguards for fundamental freedoms, there are already reports of abuse.”


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