News Brief
Authoritarian Tech

In many parts of the world, internet freedom is in decline

A new report says online election interference and increased government surveillance on social media is worsening the state of digital rights across the world.

According to this year’s Freedom on the Net report, published by the U.S. based technology watchdog and think tank Freedom House, global internet freedoms declined for the ninth consecutive year, with China as the world’s worst abuser for the fourth consecutive year.

In 2019, China tightened its grip on web censorship in advance of the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and as ongoing protests have become routine in Hong Kong. Photos of the protests posted to the messaging platform WeChat by users in Hong Kong have been subject to censorship and are not visible for users in mainland China.

China is not the only country that has restricted internet freedoms. Social media and communications applications were blocked in at least 20 other countries.

The report also warns that while social media can serve to level the playing field for civic discussion, it is now “tilting dangerously toward illiberalism.”

“While authoritarian powers like China and Russia have played an enormous role in dimming the prospects for technology to deliver greater human rights, the world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect,” says the report.

“Tech companies also have tremendous amount of power to shape our everyday critical discourse, so that power needs to be wielded very carefully.” said Allie Funk, a research analyst at Freedom on the Net.

According to the report, which observed 65 countries around the world, authorities from at least 40 nations have made use of advanced social media monitoring programs. Alongside Facebook’s reluctance to remove false political ads and those areas of YouTube where far-right extremists share content, social media is creating an online battleground where only those with advanced digital literacy find fact-checked information.

The report makes a number of recommendations about how governments, tech companies and civil society groups can work to secure online elections from disinformation and prevent government surveillance.

Funk added that governments should only be able to access the personal data of their citizens in certain situations. “Governments should have the ability to access personal data only in limited circumstances as prescribed by law and subject to judicial authorization, and only within a specific time frame,” she said.

“I think that one of the most important ways that we can protect our data on its platforms is just passing robust privacy laws,” she continued. “And then also having users hold tech companies accountable too because they have a responsibility to ensure that government authorities aren’t incorrectly manipulating their platforms and scraping that data for their own interests.”

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