For the 10th consecutive year, Internet freedom is falling, and the pandemic is contributing.
Digital article by Adrian Shahbaz & Allie Funk | Freedom on the Net 2020
In the COVID-19 era, connectivity is not a convenience, but a necessity. Virtually all human activities—commerce, education, health care, politics, socializing—seem to have moved online. But the digital world presents distinct challenges for human rights and democratic governance. State and nonstate 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.
Three notable trends punctuated an especially dismal year for internet freedom. First, political leaders used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to information. Authorities often blocked independent news sites and arrested individuals on spurious charges of spreading false news. In many places, it was state officials and their zealous supporters who actually disseminated false and misleading information with the aim of drowning out accurate content, distracting the public from ineffective policy responses, and scapegoating certain ethnic and religious communities. Some states shut off connectivity for marginalized groups, extending and deepening existing digital divides. In short, governments around the world failed in their obligation to promote a vibrant and reliable online public sphere.
Second, authorities cited COVID-19 to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive. The public health crisis has created an opening for the digitization, collection, and analysis of people’s most intimate data without adequate protections against abuses. Governments and private entities are ramping up their use of artificial intelligence (AI), biometric surveillance, and big-data tools to make decisions that affect individuals’ economic, social, and political rights. Crucially, the processes involved have often lacked transparency, independent oversight, and avenues for redress. 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 third trend has been the transformation of a slow-motion “splintering” of the internet into an all-out race toward “cyber sovereignty,” with each government imposing its own internet regulations in a manner that restricts the flow of information across national borders. For most of the period since the internet’s inception, business, civil society, and government stakeholders have participated in a consensus-driven process to harmonize technical protocols, security standards, and commercial regulation around the world. This approach allowed for the connection of billions of people to a global network of information and services, with immeasurable benefits for human development, including new ways to hold powerful actors to account.
The allure of cyber sovereignty
Rather than protecting users, the application of national sovereignty to cyberspace has given authorities free rein to crack down on human rights while ignoring objections from local civil society and the international community. China’s regime, a pioneer in this field and the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth year in a row, has long blocked popular foreign services and centralized technical infrastructure to allow for the pervasive monitoring and filtering of all traffic coming into the country. Following this model, Russian authorities have passed legislation to isolate the country from the international internet during national emergencies, and Iran’s government similarly cut off connections to hide the police’s violent response to mass protests in late 2019.
Recent events in Hong Kong illustrate in frightening detail the implications of greater state control over the online civic space. The leadership in Beijing directly imposed a draconian National Security Law on the autonomous region, prescribing harsh punishments for broadly defined speech offenses that encompass any expressions of solidarity with prodemocracy protesters. To escape such penalties, political websites, online forums, personal social media accounts, and entire apps engaged in preemptive closures or deletions. At the same time, US technology companies announced that they would suspend data-sharing agreements with local law enforcement officials to avoid complicity in human rights abuses. Authorities could raise the cost of noncompliance by mandating that companies store user data within the jurisdiction or face blocking, large fines, or the arrest of company representatives.
Alarmingly, these sorts of practices are not unique to the world’s most repressive regimes. Countries across the democratic spectrum are erecting their own digital borders in a sign of fraying trust in the open internet. The United States and India banned many popular Chinese apps, citing national security concerns. Legislators in Brazil, Nigeria, and Turkey passed or considered regulations requiring companies to keep user data from leaving the country, meaning law enforcement agencies would have easier access to sensitive information. The European Union’s highest court found that US national security programs violate Europeans’ privacy rights, invalidating one of the world’s largest data-sharing agreements. Even when aimed at curbing repressive practices, 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.
A stronger role for global civil society
The best way to stave off the rise of cyber sovereignty is to restore confidence in the legitimacy and efficacy of the existing multistakeholder model. This means envisioning new systems of internet and platform governance that uphold democratic principles of popular representation and participation. Current self-regulatory mechanisms run into difficulties when the public interest contrasts with the self-interest of the tech industry. While the scale of the international discussion—and of the leading platforms themselves—makes it difficult to incorporate input from all members of the public, global civil society organizations can provide the expertise and independent oversight required to tackle some of the problems surrounding the impact of technology on human rights.
Future initiatives on platform governance and content moderation should go beyond mere transparency. They will have to ensure that systemic human rights deficiencies flagged by various independent assessments are addressed and replaced with updated rights-respecting practices and policies for the entire internet and telecommunications industry.
As COVID-19 has demonstrated, addressing the challenges of an interconnected world requires effective coordination among policymakers and civil society from all countries. For matters related to competition, taxation, and cross-border data flows, for example, intergovernmental coordination is likely to prove more effective than ad hoc state regulation, due to the internet’s global nature. New institutions built for the digital age can manage transnational problems that do not fall neatly under one government’s jurisdiction, while ensuring that users in smaller or less powerful countries receive the same protections and care as their counterparts in large democracies. This international, multistakeholder approach will not halt the efforts of the Chinese and Russian governments to fortify themselves against—and impose their will on—the global network, but it may limit short-sighted regulatory initiatives by established and aspiring democracies, preventing a further splintering of the internet.
An irreplaceable asset for democracy
There is tremendous value to an internet that is open, free, and global. Even in settings that are otherwise highly oppressive, an unrestricted online space offers immeasurable possibilities for free expression, community engagement, and economic development.
But when civic organizing and political dissent overflow from the realm of social media onto the streets of cities like Minsk, Khartoum, and Caracas, dictators shut down networks to choke off any calls for greater democracy and human rights. State and nonstate actors drown out political dissent by spreading fear and disinformation on online platforms, even resorting to arrests and physical intimidation in some cases. Protesters from Hong Kong to Minneapolis—equipped with cameras and the courage of their convictions—risk retribution from the world’s most technologically advanced security forces.
If digital communication platforms are to advance the cause of human rights in the 21st century, the internet freedom movement must raise its ambitions from simply demanding policies that respect basic rights, to actually building robust governance structures that enshrine and enforce those protections. This report outlines concrete recommendations for governments, technology companies, and civil society on how to rekindle faith in a free internet and push back against digital authoritarianism and repressive cyber sovereignty. Reversing the antidemocratic transformation of today’s internet is a vital step in preventing even worse outcomes that could arise from the digital technologies of tomorrow.
Tracking the Global Decline
A rundown of prominent changes to countries’ internet freedom scores
Global internet freedom has declined for the 10th consecutive year: 26 countries’ scores worsened during this year’s coverage period, while 22 countries registered net gains. The largest declines occurred in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, followed by India, Ecuador, and Nigeria. A record number of countries featured deliberate disruptions to internet service. On the positive side, Sudan and Ukraine experienced the largest improvements, followed by Zimbabwe. A raft of court rulings shored up human rights online in countries ranked Free, Partly Free, and Not Free alike. The United States ranked seventh overall, while Iceland was once again the top performer. For the sixth consecutive year, China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom.
Freedom on the Net assesses internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, accounting for 87 percent of the world’s internet users. This report, the 10th in its series, covers developments between June 2019 and May 2020. More than 70 analysts contributed to this year’s report, using a standard methodology to determine each country’s internet freedom score on a 100-point scale, based on 21 indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Freedom on the Net also identifies global trends related to the impact of information and communication technologies on democracy. The data underpinning this year’s trends, in-depth reports on each of the countries surveyed, and the full methodology can be found here.
Countries in decline
Myanmar’s internet freedom score fell by five points, as a government-ordered internet blackout has left some 1.4 million people living in Rakhine and Chin States without access almost continuously since June 2019. The government also blocked several independent news outlets and sites serving ethnic minority groups, some of which were reporting on the military’s human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other groups. At the same time, online content inciting violence against the Rohingya and other marginalized groups proliferated on the Burmese internet.
Internet freedom in Kyrgyzstan declined by five points as well. In August 2019, the government briefly disrupted connectivity in Koi-Tash, where supporters of former president Almazbek Atambayev clashed violently with special forces sent to arrest him. Investigative journalists who exposed a far-reaching corruption ring were targeted with punitive defamation lawsuits and roughed up by unknown assailants, and their websites were disabled by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Police also embarked on a campaign against rumors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, detaining people who purportedly spread false news and in some cases forcing them to publicly apologize.
India lost four points. The world’s largest democracy remains the world leader in internet shutdowns; last year, for the first time, the government disrupted connectivity in major cities, a milestone occasioned by demonstrations against a discriminatory law that gave certain non-Muslim groups special access to citizenship. Authorities increasingly pressured social media companies such as Twitter and streaming platforms like Netflix to remove content that was critical of the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda and its actions in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state until it was stripped of its semiautonomous status and divided into two “union territories” in 2019. In addition, new evidence pointed to the use of spyware against prominent activists, journalists, and lawyers involved in advocating for the rights of marginalized groups.
Ecuador saw its overall score decline by four points after austerity measures that were ordered in October 2019 sparked mass protests. The demonstrations were met with intentional, targeted disruptions to internet connections as well as to Facebook and WhatsApp’s image-sharing functionalities, preventing protesters from communicating with one another and journalists from carrying out their work. Separately, online journalists who investigated local politicians and criminal groups continued to experience violence and death threats, with one journalist targeted in a bombing at his home.
Internet freedom in Nigeria also declined, as the government tightened its grip on the online media environment. Journalists and outlets experienced cyberattacks—some allegedly linked to security forces—and police used call records obtained from service providers to arrest reporters. However, a few websites that were previously blocked under government orders are now accessible, and Nigerians remain active in their use of social media to call for political and social change.
Score declines in Rwanda caused the country to fall from Partly Free to Not Free, and new evidence suggested that the government uses sophisticated spyware to monitor and intimidate exiled dissidents. In addition, the country’s Senate released a report that smeared news outlets and opposition figures with allegations of genocide denial; those targeted subsequently experienced censorship and harassment. Over a dozen bloggers and journalists were arrested during the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown.
More broadly, this year Freedom on the Net observed intentional disruptions to connectivity in a record 22 out of 65 countries. Many of these disruptions, including Iran’s November 2019 countrywide blackout and shutdowns in Moscow in August and September 2019, were directly precipitated by protests. Such practices are an ultimate expression of contempt for freedoms of association and assembly, as well as for the right to access information.
Sudan’s internet freedom score improved by five points under a transitional government that was formed by military commanders and civilian protest leaders to replace the repressive regime of longtime president Omar al-Bashir. The interim constitution contains language that protects freedom of expression and access to the internet. However, optimism about the country’s trajectory was tempered by renewed connectivity restrictions at the beginning and end of the coverage period, including a 40-day shutdown following a brutal massacre of protesters by security forces in June 2019.
Ukraine’s five-point improvement also comes with caveats. For the first time, Freedom on the Net excluded the occupied regions of eastern Ukraine from its assessment in order to align the survey with Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, which assesses conditions in the Eastern Donbas area separately because they are so different from those in government-controlled Ukraine. As a result of this methodological change, Ukraine’s score improved. However, the new administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also presided over more tangible improvements, such as the removal of telecommunications licensing requirements that have historically been associated with corruption. It largely abandoned the previous practices of administratively blocking websites—although in a disappointing May 2020 move, Zelenskyy extended sanctions on several Russian-owned technology companies.
Zimbabwe registered a four-point improvement, in part because there was no repetition of the connectivity restrictions the government had imposed during a violent crackdown on protests in January 2019. However, the authorities continued to arrest and harass internet users who shared critical commentary, with security forces going so far as to abduct and torture an online comedian. A two-day internet shutdown during anticorruption protests after the coverage period similarly suggested that the score improvement may be short-lived.
Courts upheld protections for human rights online in several countries across the democratic spectrum, issuing landmark decisions on the illegitimacy of internet shutdowns, online censorship, and bulk surveillance. In June 2019, a court in Sudan ordered an end to that country’s weeks-long internet shutdown; a year later, judges in Indonesia found that government-imposed shutdowns amid protests in Papua and West Papua Provinces were illegal. Litigation in Pakistan led a court to denounce an arbitrary website blocking as a violation of due process, while Georgia’s constitutional court invalidated a regulation on “inadmissible content” whose broadly worded prohibitions threatened the viability of media outlets and internet service providers. Meanwhile, judges in Brazil, Estonia, Germany, and South Africa moved to limit state surveillance powers. Taken together, these rulings show that courts—when acting fairly and independently—can serve as powerful defenders of internet freedom.
Contrasting models for internet policy
China ranked last in Freedom on the Net’s analysis for the sixth consecutive year. New content controls and user arrests were reported throughout the coverage period, including in connection with speech about the Hong Kong protest movement that emerged in mid-2019. With the onset of COVID-19, every component of the regime’s internet control apparatus—including automated censorship, high-tech surveillance, and large-scale arrests—was activated to stanch the spread of not just the virus but also unofficial information and criticism of the government. State officials and media, backed by bots and trolls, promoted disinformation domestically and in targeted campaigns around the world. Nevertheless, some creative and courageous users in China managed to share important details about the first days of the outbreak and the lockdown with the international community, while also circulating and archiving investigative reporting.
Iceland remained the most steadfast protector of internet freedom, with high rates of access, few restrictions on content, and strong safeguards for human rights online. These rights were expanded with the passage of a whistleblower-protection law during the coverage period, though other long-awaited reforms on issues such as intermediary liability remain stalled in the parliament.
The failings of internet freedom’s traditional champion
Internet freedom dropped by one point in the United States, which has now experienced four consecutive years of decline. Even as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms were used to great effect to organize civic activism like the Black Lives Matter protests, growing surveillance of social media by federal and local law enforcement agencies undermined these tools’ usefulness, especially after several people experienced targeted harassment and even spurious criminal charges for their posts or retweets. The coverage period also saw the online sphere flooded with politicized disinformation and harmful misinformation related to both the protests and COVID-19. While it did not contribute to the year’s score change, this deluge highlighted a collective failure to address content manipulation—homegrown or otherwise—since the 2016 election first thrust the phenomenon into the spotlight. It also boded ill for the upcoming 2020 election.
An executive order signed by President Donald Trump in May marked a shift away from the robust intermediary-liability protections that have long been synonymous with the US internet freedom model. After the coverage period, the president ordered US individuals and entities to halt transactions with TikTok and WeChat, potentially forcing the popular Chinese-owned social media platforms to sell or abandon US operations that have an estimated 50 million and 19 million users, respectively. The parent companies of WeChat and TikTok are based in mainland China, where firms regularly comply with government demands to censor content, manipulate discussions, and share user data with Chinese state security agencies, leading some experts to warn that the apps present a threat to US national security.
The United States has now experienced four consecutive years of decline in internet freedom.
The new policies adopted by Washington constitute an arbitrary and disproportionate response to the genuine risks posed by the apps, particularly in the absence of strong data-privacy legislation that outlines the standards Americans should expect from domestic and foreign companies. In fact, the moves may encourage other governments to tighten regulations against dominant US-based platforms and services that over the years have been accused of inciting ethnic violence, undermining election integrity, and working with US intelligence agencies. While few countries have done more than the United States over the decades to develop and promote the global uptake of a free and open internet, this year once again signaled the decline of US leadership in cyber diplomacy and a broader retreat by Washington from international cooperation to zero-sum thinking.