Governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data and using claims of “fake news” to suppress dissent, leading to a decline in global internet freedom for the eighth consecutive year. These are just some of the troubling findings from Freedom on the Net 2019, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of online freedom, released by Freedom House.
Since June 2017, 26 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net have experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. The biggest declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela. The United States also saw a decline in internet freedom, with the Federal Communications Commission repealing rules that guaranteed net neutrality, and Congress’ reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “This pattern poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”
The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence. Disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.
The report observed that events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships. In April 2018, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified in two congressional hearings about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation.
The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes. Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters, it added.