Internet freedom declined in the U.S. for the fifth consecutive year, knocking America out of the top 10 countries in Freedom House‘s annual rankings of global internet freedom.
The U.S. ranked 12th, tied with Australia, in the new Freedom on the Net 2021 report, down from seventh place in the previous year’s report.
The 2021 report observed that a “fraught environment” for internet freedom was evident surrounding the 2020 elections and former President Donald Trump’s transition from office.
The report notes that tech companies banned Mr. Trump over the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots by his supporters, which created a new debate about the power of companies to police politicians’ speech and prevent offline violence.
“False, misleading, and manipulated information continued to proliferate online, even affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results,” read Freedom House‘s report. “The new administration took promising steps to enforce stronger protections for internet users.”
The Freedom House report’s authors fault the U.S. government’s hands-off approach to the internet as letting authoritarian leaders in foreign countries fill the resulting vacuum.
“The United States played a leading role in shaping early internet norms around free speech and free markets, but its laissez faire approach to the tech industry created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance,” read the report.
Citing the resulting “absence of a shared global vision for a free and open internet,” Freedom House claimed that authoritarian governments thereby “have cited a vague need to retake control of the internet from foreign powers, multinational corporations, and in some cases, civil society.”
Freedom House is a nonprofit group that examines threats to human rights. It used more than 80 analysts and advisers to grade 70 countries on a 100-point scale and found global internet freedom dropping for the 11th straight year.
Grades of 100-70 meant a country was “free,” of 69-40 meant “partly free,” and scores of 39-0 meant a country was not free.
The report said it witnessed a “record-breaking crackdown on freedom of expression online” with 56 countries arresting or convicting people for online speech, 21 countries blocking access to social media platforms particularly during tumultuous political times, and at least 20 countries suspending internet access.
Iceland claimed the report’s top spot for the third consecutive year with a grade of 96, while China scored worst with a grade of 10.
The U.S. scored 75, which placed it behind such allies as Britain, Germany and Canada, as well as much smaller nations such as Taiwan and Estonia.
“China ranks as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row,” read the report. “Chinese authorities imposed draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting, and mundane daily communications. The COVID-19 pandemic remains one of the most heavily censored topics.
The report also noted the Chinese government’s actions against its country’s companies, in the name of its own power.
“Officials also cracked down on the country’s tech giants, citing their abuses related to competition and data protection, though the campaign further concentrated power in the hands of the authoritarian state,” the report stated.
Analysts rated the nations through examining three categories, including obstacles to access, limitations on content, and violations of user rights.
The Freedom House report recommended that U.S. policymakers repeal surveillance laws, pass federal electronic privacy laws, and protect encryption, among other things.
The report said democratic nations should ensure that new internet regulations foster more free expression but instead have found countries enlisting the private sector to do their bidding.
The report cites authoritarian regimes in China and Russia as examples of where the state has taken heavy-handed action to “further subordinate the private sector to the repressive political interests of the state.”