The report from Freedom House, a Washington DC-based democracy support group, found internet freedom refused for the fifth year in a row in the US and the 11th year internationally – for two distinct reasons.
In the U.S, the lack of management in the tech industry has enabled companies to develop beyond reproach and misinformation to thrive online. Elsewhere, authoritarian governments have limited their tight control of the internet to overcome free expression.
Freedom House mentioned an increasing lack of diversity among sources of online information in the US that allowed conspiracies and misinformation to grow, an issue that was gravely underscored during the 2020 elections and the 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.
“The spread of false and conspiracist content about the November 2020 elections shook the foundations of the American political system,” the report said.
The yearly study, which has been issued since 1973, uses a standard index to measure internet freedom by country on a 100-point scale. It suggests questions about the internet foundation, government control and obstacles to access, and content control. Countries are scored on a scale of 100 points with higher numbers deemed more “free”.
The report described actions taken by Joe Biden since his election as “promising” for internet freedom, calling the reversal of a Trump administration order to prevent transactions between US individuals and Chinese social media companies as beneficial.
Meanwhile, global internet freedom decreased for the 11th consecutive year, with more governments securing users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before. Officials in at least 20 countries suspended internet access, and 20 regimes barred access to social media platforms, the report said.
The biggest drops were observed in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda. In Uganda, internet freedom fell by seven points after pro-government social media accounts overwhelmed the online environment with fabricated information preceding the January 2021 elections. In August 2020 in Belarus, government forces cracked down on the election crisis by restricting access to the internet and surveilling activists online.
The report called the Chinese government “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom”, calling new legislation criminalizing certain phrases online and draconian prison terms issued to activists for online dissent - including an 18-year sentence against one person for sharing a paper slamming the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year, officials in India urged Twitter to remove protest-related and critical analysis and to stop flagging tagged content shared by the ruling party.
The report further showed governments are fighting with technology companies on users’ rights, with authorities in at least 42 countries seeking new rules for platforms on content, data, and competition over the past year.
In India, in particular, officials urged Twitter to remove posts critical of the ruling party. Authorities in Nigeria obstructed access to Twitter after the platform removed dangerous posts by the country’s president. President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey repeatedly accused tech companies of “digital fascism” for their unwillingness to follow provisions in the country’s new social media law.
Despite these problems, the report said legislation to discuss abuses of tech companies has been limited. It discovered that while 48 countries have sought regulatory actions in the past year, little of that legislation has the power to make meaningful change.