The Internet might seem like a lawless land, full of trolls and fraud to some; to others, it might be a convenient place to chat with friends, watch entertaining content, play games and shop around. Yet, how freely can you expressed yourself on the Internet, without risking some form of limitation or worse – a prosecution?
Today we are looking at the Freedom on the Net 2019 report for insights about the limits and controls that the governments of 65 countries (representing 89% of the internet population) have imposed with respect to individuals, social media, elections, and surveillance.
The report covers a period between June 2018 and May 2019. It received "generous support" from U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), the New York Community Trust, Google, Internet Society, and Verizon Media.
Narrative reports are available at: freedomonthenet.org
The 5 countries with the biggest decline were: Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe. In all but one cases the declines were connected to a change in presidency in each of the respective countries. Zimbabwe had its decline connected to a civil unrest due to deteriorating economic conditions.
Global internet freedom has declined for the 9th consecutive year.
China is still on the list as the worst abuser or internet freedom, now for the 4th year in a row. Hong Kong protests, the 30th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, and now COVID-19, which was not included in the report, but still bears relevance, all contributed towards targeting individuals and banning them from social media platforms like WeChat, which is used in China for a wide range of purposes, from banking to transportation. With bans in place, many more people self-censored themselves to retain access to the platform.
Over 1.5 billion internet users, or 39% of global users, live in 3 countries—China, India, and the United States—that span the spectrum of internet freedom environments, from "Not Free" to "Free".
The United States also saw a decline in internet freedom, but used a different strategy, focusing more on surveillance and disinformation. This included searches of travellers’ electronic devices, disinformation campaigns around major political event like the November 2018 midterm elections, and, while not mentioned in the report, the US visitor visas required applicants to disclose their email addresses and social media accounts.
Despite 40% of countries assessed in the report seeing decline in internet freedom, some 16 countries (25%) saw improvements, however minor. Specifically, the report mentions Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Armenia, all of which lifted some restrictions on the internet freedom when new governments came to serve in the respective countries.
Iceland, saw no criminal or civil cases against users for online expression for the period the report covers.
Iceland was at the top of the list for internet freedom. The report cites near-universal connectivity, limited restrictions on content, and strong protections for users’ rights as part of Iceland's track record. A close second was Estonia, only 1 point lower on a 0-100 scale according to the report.
Key Internet Controls (KICs) refer to different ways that governments used to censor and control digital sphere. The report mentions 9 KICs in total:
Only 5 countries in the report were not observed to use any KICs: Argentina, Armenia, Canada, Estonia, and Iceland.
Countries which employed ALL of the controls were China, Egypt, and Russia.
The most popular control over the covered period was arrests of individuals, while the least popular was passing new surveillance laws. Most countries used one or more controls, with the median across all reported countries being 4 (of the maximum 9).
With 3.8 billion people having access to the internet according to the report (which is about 50% of the world population), 40 of the 65 countries covered by Freedom on the Net report have instituted advanced social media surveillance programs. This covers 89% of of internet users, or nearly 3 billion people. An example of such surveillance is the 42,000 volunteers in Iran who monitor online speech, or the Communist party of China recruiting thousands to report problematic online content to authorities.
71% of internet users live in a country where people were arrested or imprisoned for what they have posted online. 47 countrues out of 65 assessed in the report featured arrests for political, social, or religious speech.
Given that many of the changes in internet freedom are tightly connected to changes in the political landscape, it is unsurprising that the elections in the nations across the world have been interefered with, according to the report. The map below, taken from the report, shows the global scale of digital election inteference.
Social media was used for domestic and foreign political influence: "Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions in 38 of the 65 countries covered in this report - a new high."
The 3 primary tactics in election interference identified in the report were:
All 3 tactics have been used in the countries considered "not free", and only informational tactics were used in contries considered "free".
"The risk of punishment for skirting election rules generally pales in comparison with the gains of winning."
Judging from the report, the internet in the observed countries is far from a lawless land, with state actors actively shaping, observing, detaining, and otherwise controlling the internet and its users.
Only 5 countries were observed not to use any of the 9 key internet controls (Argentina, Armenia, Canada, Estonia, and Iceland), most countries did use some controls (median - 4), and 3 of the 65 observed countries (China, Egypt, Russia) imposed all 9 controls mentioned in the report on their part of the internet and its users.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that "fake news" and disinformation are trendy topics for discussion. Internet users in any country should remain vigilant about the laws and regulations local and global alike, and remain resilient in the face of actors online that may not have their best interest at heart.
Applications are open to individuals from academia and professional practice (non-academic) to attend an online sandpit on Digital Vulnerabilities in July 2021. Up to £160k of SPRITE+ funding will be made available to fund interdisciplinary projects.