Add the state of online political freedom worldwide to the list of things that are not looking so healthy since the coronavirus pandemic arrived earlier this year.
A new report this month from Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization, is warning that internet users around the world are experiencing a “dismal” deterioration of their personal rights as regimes crack down on free speech and online dissent.
The report, which also ranked each country on its internet freedoms, found that the COVID-19 pandemic has led many governments to crack down on digital rights, instituting heightened surveillance practices and additional monitoring with the global health crisis as their excuse.
China ranked as the worst offender for the survey’s sixth consecutive year, while Iceland ranked first in digital freedom followed by Estonia and Canada. The U.S. tied for seventh.
The report cited a number of retreats on digital openness, such as internet blackouts in Myanmar earlier this year. Kyrgyzstan, India, Ecuador and Nigeria were also among the countries which saw significant drops in their rankings in 2020.
“The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom,” the report said. “State and non-state actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control.”
Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, said the coronavirus outbreak gave undemocratic regimes such as China an opportunity to intensify their efforts to control content and debate online. A particular target was Hong Kong, where Beijing’s attempts to crush pro-democracy protests were fought out in large part online.
“What we saw in China is that the pandemic is normalizing the tools of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese government has long sought to mainstream,” he said Wednesday in a briefing on the report. “Individuals have complained of being asked to install webcams inside of their homes and outside of their front doors, allegedly to monitor their compliance with quarantines.”
He also pointed to the detention of ethnic and religious minorities in China for what he called “mundane online activities” such as communicating with relatives abroad.
“These practices raise the prospect of a dystopian future in which private companies, security agencies and cybercriminals enjoy easy access not only to sensitive information about the places we visit and the items we purchase, but also to our medical histories, facial and voice patterns, and even our genetic codes,” the report said.
Overall, the report highlighted three practices that resulted in declining internet freedom ratings.
It found that political leaders used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to information; cited COVID-19 to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive; and accelerated a push of the “splintering” of the Web into a rush toward “cyber sovereignty” that restricts the flow of information across national borders.
“Unless we change course, the slow-motion splintering of the internet [is] likely to accelerate into an all-out race for cyber sovereignty,” Mr. Shahbaz said, “which will likely harm the rights of hundreds of millions of users around the world.”
The report found that it was not just repressive regimes who have moved to curb online freedom during the pandemic.
Countries across the democratic spectrum are erecting their own digital borders in a sign of fraying trust in the open internet,” the report found.
The U.S. and India, it noted, have tried to ban popular Chinese apps, while the European Union’s efforts to monitor online speech for privacy violations risks “invalidating one of the world’s largest data-sharing agreements” with the U.S.
While the intention may be justifiable, “these actions serve to legitimize the push for each state to oversee its own ‘national internet,’ which was previously championed only by autocratic governments in countries such as China, Iran and Russia,” the report said.