Nov 10, 2019 - World

Internet freedom declines in U.S. and around the world

Reproduced from a Freedom House map; Note: Score based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights; Map: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from a Freedom House map; Note: Score based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights; Map: Axios Visuals

Rising levels of political disinformation and government surveillance are making the internet less free in the U.S., according to a new report by Freedom House, a democracy and human rights research group.

The big picture: Internet freedom is in decline around the world, according to the report, as governments increasingly use social media to monitor their citizens and spread disinformation at home and overseas.

  • The U.S. has long been a bastion of internet freedom and still ranks sixth out of 65 countries assessed, but its status has fallen each of the past three years.

Details: The authors cite monitoring of social media platforms by immigration and law enforcement agencies as a particular concern in the U.S., along with political disinformation that has been "at times exacerbated by top government officials and political leaders."

  • Most free: Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany, Australia.
  • Least free: China is "the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom," followed by Iran, Syria, Cuba and Vietnam.
  • Of China, the authors write: "Censorship and surveillance were pushed to unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls, including in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in response to persistent antigovernment protests in Hong Kong."

Countries in decline:

  • Sudan saw social media blocked during mass protests against now-former President Omar al-Bashir, and harsh repression during a lengthy state of emergency.
  • Kazakhstan's government "temporarily disrupted internet connectivity, blocked ... news websites, and restricted access to social media platforms" during its stage-managed presidential transition.
  • Brazil saw a rise of cyberattacks and "social media manipulation," mostly from supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro — who then hired consultants accused of "spearheading the sophisticated disinformation campaign."
  • Bangladesh's government, in response to protests over road safety and electoral irregularities, "resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks, and arresting journalists and ordinary users alike."
  • Zimbabwe became a more difficult place to access the internet, both because of economic chaos and crackdowns from the government.

The other side: Ethiopia was one of the few countries in which internet restrictions were loosened this year, under reform-minded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Improvements were also seen in Malaysia and Armenia.

The bottom line: "What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation," the authors write about social media.

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