Nov 10, 2019

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

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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.

Go deeper

Iran cuts internet during, and after, protests

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As protests over gas prices erupted last weekend, Iranian officials cut the nation's access to the internet. On Wednesday, according to state media, the government declared victory over the protests. Yet the internet has only begun to trickle back online.

Why it matters: Keeping the internet off prevented global reporting of police abuses and prevents domestic coordination between protestors, Adrian Shahbaz of the human rights group Freedom House told Axios.

Go deeperArrowNov 21, 2019

The free press is getting squeezed, even in democracies

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The corruption indictments issued for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week include charges that he sought to manipulate the media to secure more favorable coverage.

Why it matters: Such interventions have become more prevalent around the world, including in democracies. As we've seen in places like Russia and Turkey, one of the surest signs democracy is being eroded is a crackdown on independent media.

Russia and China get a big win on internet "sovereignty"

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations adopted an anti-cybercrime pact backed by China, North Korea and Russia Monday, against the wishes of U.S. and pro-civil liberty groups.

The big picture: For years, the United States has squared off with more repressive nations over global internet norms. The U.S. wants countries to offer citizens maximal access to the global internet, while Russia and others argue that countries should have "internet sovereignty" to block websites critical of governments and to punish online dissidents.

Go deeperArrowNov 21, 2019