Oct 12, 2021 - Technology

Power shifts from Big Tech as digital crackdowns intensify

Data: Freedom House "Freedom of the Net 2021" report; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Internet freedom around the world has dropped for the 11th consecutive year, according to an annual report from Freedom House, a non-profit focused on expanding freedom and democracy.

Why it matters: The findings suggest that a broader shift in power from tech companies to nation states over the past year has resulted in "a record-breaking crackdown" on freedom of expression online.

Details: The report finds that government officials in 56 of the 70 countries measured have arrested or convicted people for their speech online. (The 70 countries measured account for 88% of the world's internet users.)

  • In total, 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, typically amid political turmoil, protests and elections.
  • Speech on Facebook, the largest of all social media apps globally, has by far been targeted the most by government officials. Countries with autocratic regimes generally tend to target social media more frequently.

The big picture: The findings reflect a broader global challenge of balancing the promises of the internet and social media with broader risks to society — most notably, the erosion of truth.

  • Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov, who risked their lives to speak truth to power in their native countries of the Philippines and Russia.
  • Ressa has been an outspoken critic against Facebook for its failure to combat misinformation.

What to watch: More governments globally are introducing regulations to take back power from tech firms, but the report authors note that "users understandably lack confidence" that those efforts will protect their rights.

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