Internet freedom around the world has declined for the eighth consecutive year, raising fears that state censorship online is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
A new report by think tank Freedom House found that, of the 65 countries it assessed, 26 experienced a deterioration in internet freedom over the past year. Almost half of all declines related to elections.
It is the eighth year in a row the global survey of internet freedom has recorded a drop.
According to Freedom on the Net 2018, governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data and using claims of “fake news” to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy.
At the same time, the regime in China has become more brazen in providing like-minded governments with technology and training that enable them to control their own citizens online.
During the early decades of the internet, many influential thinkers claimed the internet, by its very nature, would spread democracy and freedom of speech.
“In fact, as the Freedom House report demonstrates, the internet is an excellent tool for social control, enabling surveillance and guiding of public opinion that would have been impossible in the past,” says CNN.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age,” says Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz.
China has long led the way in state cyber-security and censorship. Its Great Firewall maintains a strict measure of control over what Chinese citizens can view online, and blocks access to platforms such as Facebook and Google entirely.
Earlier this year, Google faced a huge backlash after it was revealed to be working on a censored version of its search engine to service the lucrative Chinese market.
China’s success in censoring what was previously thought to be an uncontrollable tool for free speech and the spread of information has spawned imitators across the world.
Countries such as Egypt and Iran, have “rewritten restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services”, says the Freedom House report.
“Of course, there are tradeoffs between freedom and security,” says The Verge. The report is critical of Sri Lanka and India, which have periodically shut down or limited access to the internet. However, in both cases, citizens were being murdered by mobs that had encountered misinformation spread on social media to fuel ethnic and religious conflict.
While China, Iran and Syria topped Freedom House’s index of internet censorship, the United States also saw its internet freedom decline in 2018, reflecting obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of users’ rights.
Its single-digit drop in the rankings may not seem like much, says Tech Crunch, “but many see the US as a beacon of free speech and expression – a model that others aspire to replicate.”
“As the report found, that goes both ways,” says the tech site. “The US has its part to blame for the decline in at least 17 countries where ‘fake news’ has been co-opted by oppressive regimes to justify crackdowns on dissent and free speech.”
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