Growing the Internet Human Rights

Social Media Crisis Drives Ongoing Decline In Global Internet Freedom

Global Internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019, largely as a result of social media increasingly being used by governments around the world as a conduit for mass surveillance and electoral manipulation. The Freedom on the Net 2019 report, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of Internet freedom, was released on November 5 by Freedom House, and highlights the shift in social media from a level playing field for civic discussion to an instrument of political distortion and societal control.

The Freedom on the Net 2019 report analyzed Internet freedom in 65 countries worldwide, covering 87% of global Internet users. Surveyed countries are designated as ‘Free’, ‘Partly Free’, or ‘Not Free’ based on an examination of, and scoring against, three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 of them saw Internet freedom decline over the last year, with the biggest drops observed in Sudan and Kazakhstan. The longtime presidents of both countries were ousted, leading to widespread blocking of social media platforms, disruptions of Internet connectivity, and the increased use of electronic surveillance to undermine free expression.

The report called digital platforms “the new battleground for democracy,” finding evidence of digital election interference in 26 of the 30 countries studied that held national votes over the last year. It notes that Internet freedom restrictions tend to escalate before and during crucial votes, and that digital election interference was found to have taken three forms: informational measures (surreptitious manipulation of online discussions), technical measures (including access restrictions), and legal measures (to punish opponents and limit political expression).

Freedom House’s analysis also found that Internet freedom in the United States declined for the third straight year. Although it highlighted that the online environment within the country continues to remain vibrant, diverse, and free from state censorship, the report also called out a number of factors that drove the Internet freedom score lower, ranking the U.S. seventh globally. These included:

  • Expanded surveillance of the public by law enforcement and immigration agencies, with limited oversight or transparency.
  • Increased monitoring of social media platforms.
  • Disinformation around major political events, with both foreign and domestic actors manipulating content for political purposes.

As noted above, connectivity/access restrictions and Web site/application blocking have become increasingly popular tactics. This year’s report found that social media and communications applications were blocked in at least 20 surveyed countries. Internet connectivity didn’t fare much better, with telecommunications networks suspended in 17 surveyed countries. These actions often occurred ahead of elections or during periods of protest and civil unrest. Unfortunately, this remains an ongoing issue, as cited in our summary of the Freedom on the Net 2017 report.

Despite the declines in Internet freedom and their underlying causes highlighted in the report, the news was not all bad this year. Freedom House found that 16 surveyed countries earned improvements in their Internet freedom scores, with the greatest gain seen in Ethiopia. While network shutdowns unfortunately continued to occur in the country, they were more temporary and localized than previous nationwide shutdowns. In addition, the new Prime Minister’s government loosened restrictions on the Internet, unblocking over 250 Web sites, and also reduced the number of people imprisoned for online activity.

Malaysia and Armenia were also specifically called out for their positive progress, and Iceland was listed as the “world’s best protector of Internet freedom”, with the report stating “The country boasts enviable conditions, including near-universal connectivity, limited restrictions on content, and strong protections for users’ rights.”

How you can get involved:

  • Read the full Freedom on the Net 2019 report to gain deeper insight into this year’s findings.
  • Attend the Freedom on the Net 2019 launch event on November 12 for a discussion of key findings and emerging trends in Internet freedom, including the shifting methods used by governments to manipulate elections and monitor citizens on social media.
  • Review the country-level rankings to understand the key Internet controls employed in your country, and other countries of interest.
  • Use the recommendations within the report as guidance for outreach to local policymakers, initiatives within the private sector, and participation in civil society activities.
  • Follow organizations including Freedom House (@freedomhouse) and the Internet Society (@internetsociety) on social media to stay up-to-date on issues concerning Internet freedom around the world.

The Internet Society is a proud supporter of Freedom House and the Freedom on the Net initiative because their work aligns closely with our goals for the Internet to be open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy.

Human Rights

Internet Freedom Declines Again, with ‘Polarized Echo Chambers’ Aiding Censorship Efforts

The amount of freedom on the global Internet has declined for the eighth straight year, with a group of countries moving toward “digital authoritarianism,” according to a new report from Freedom House.

A number of factors, including the spread of false rumors and hateful propaganda online, have contributed to an Internet that “can push citizens into polarized echo chambers that pull at the social fabric of the country,” said the report, released Thursday. These rifts often give aid to antidemocratic forces, including government efforts to censor the Internet, Freedom House said.

During 2018, authoritarians used claims of fake news and of data breaches and other scandals as an excuse to move closer to a Chinese model of Internet censorship, said the report, cosponsored by the Internet Society.

“China is exporting its model of digital authoritarianism throughout the world, posing a serious threat to the future of free and open Internet,” said Sanja Kelly, director for Internet Freedom at Freedom House. “In order to counter it, democratic governments need to showcase that there is a better way to manage the Internet, and that cybersecurity and disinformation can be successfully addressed without infringing on human rights.”

Thirty-six countries sent representatives to Chinese training programs on censorship and surveillance since January 2017. Another 18 countries have purchased monitoring technology or facial recognition systems from Chinese companies during the same time frame.

“Digital authoritarian is being promoted [by China] as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the Internet as an engine for human liberation,” Freedom House said.

About 71 percent of the Internet’s 3.7 billion users live in countries where technology users were arrested or imprisoned for posting content related to political, social, or religious issues, the report said. Fifty-five percent live in countries where political, social or religious content was blocked online, and 48 percent live in countries were people have been attacked or killed for their online activities since June 2017.

About 47 percent of Internet users live in countries where access to social media or messaging platforms were temporarily or permanently blocked.

Freedom House reviewed the Internet-related policies of 65 countries. Internet freedom declined in 26 countries, including the United States, with the biggest score declines in Egypt and Sri Lanka. Nineteen countries posted gains in Internet freedom, although most of the increases were minor, the organization said.

During the year, 17 governments approved or proposed new laws restricting online media in the name of fighting fake news. Eighteen countries increased surveillance efforts.

The most restrictive countries were China, Iran, Ethiopia, Syria, and Cuba, the group said. Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Germany, and Australia were the countries with the most Internet freedom. The United States ranked sixth highest, the U.K. seventh, and Japan ninth.

In a dozen countries, declines in Internet freedom were related to elections. In these countries, the lead-up to an election resulted in a spread of disinformation, new censorship, technical attacks, or arrests of government critics, Freedom House said.

In addition to concerns about censorship and the spread of disinformation, the report also decries a loss of online privacy. Even as some countries push for more personal protections, “the unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy,” Freedom House said.

The report offers several recommendations for policymakers, for private companies, and for civil society. Governments should ensure that all Internet-related laws adhere to international human rights laws, and they should enact strong data protection laws, the report recommends.

Members of civil society can work with private companies on fact-checking efforts and can monitor their home countries’ collaboration with Chinese surveillance and censorship efforts, the report says.

In addition to the Internet Society, sponsors of the report include Google, Oath, the New York Community Trust, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Read the Freedom on the Net report.

Human Rights

Your online freedoms are under threat – 2017 Freedom on the Net Report

As more people get online everyday, Internet Freedom is facing a global decline for the 7th year in a row.

Today, Freedom House released their 2017 Freedom on the Net report, one of the most comprehensive assessments of countries’ performance regarding online freedoms. The Internet Society is one of the supporters of this report. We think it brings solid and needed evidence-based data in an area that fundamentally impacts user trust.

Looking across 65 countries, the report highlights several worrying trends, including:

  • manipulation of social media in democratic processes
  • restrictions of virtual private networks (VPNs)
  • censoring of mobile connectivity
  • attacks against netizens and online journalists

Elections prove to be particular tension points for online freedoms (see also Freedom House’s new Internet Freedom Election Monitor). Beyond the reported trend towards more sophisticated government attempts to control online discussions, the other side of the coin is an increase in restrictions to Internet access, whether through shutting down networks entirely, or blocking specific communication platforms and services.

These Internet shutdowns are at the risk of becoming the new normal. In addition to their impact on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, shutdowns generate severe economic costs, affecting entire economies [1] and the livelihood of tech entrepreneurs, often in regions that would benefit the most from digital growth.

We need to build on these numbers as they open a new door to ask governments for accountability. By adopting the U.N. Sustainable Developed Goals (SDGs) last year, governments of the world have committed to leveraging the power of the Internet in areas such as education, health and economic growth. Cutting off entire populations from the Internet sets the path in the wrong direction.

Mindful that there is urgency to address this issue, the Internet Society is releasing today a new policy brief on Internet shutdowns, which provides an entry into this issue, teases various impacts of such measures and offers some preliminary recommendations to governments and other stakeholders.

Of course, this can only be the beginning of any action and we need everyone to get informed and make their voices heard on shutdowns and other issues related to online freedoms.

Here is what you can do:

  • Follow the live video stream of the launch event for Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report. The Internet Society’s Vice President of Global Policy Development, Sally Wentworth, is among the panelists. (14 November 2017, 9:30 am EDT)
  • Ask people to spread the word that Internet shutdowns cost everyone.  Governments should stop using Internet shutdowns and other means of denying access as a policy tool: we must keep the Internet on. Tweet using #ShapeTomorrow and #NetFreedom2017. You’ll find more tweets on Internet Society’s Twitter account.

[1] Among other similar studies, Brookings assessed a cost of about USD 2.4 billion resulting from shutdowns across countries evaluated between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.

Image credit: Sara Silva on Unsplash

Building Trust Human Rights Privacy

The long decline of online freedom

According to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. What’s going on?

The internet, for many of us who are fortunate enough to access it on a daily basis, has become an integral part of our lives. Virtually everything we do is tethered to this online platform, and it has transformed many aspects of our economic, social and cultural lives. But while we may take the ease with which we can access and use the internet for granted, a new report from Freedom House highlights the unsettling fact that billions of people around the globe are not so fortunate.

“Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s annual study on internet freedom around the world, sheds light on the fact that in many parts of the world, access to the free and open internet is simply not a reality. While this is due to a number of factors, for many people government-mobilized access restrictions and shutdowns present a significant barrier to the tremendous benefits of the internet.

The Internet Society is a proud sponsor of this year’s report. As an organization that supports the global development of an open internet free of undue regulation and censorship, it considers the findings of “Freedom on the Net” troubling. In particular, we believe the disruptions in internet access identified by Freedom House have harmful social, free speech, political and even economic consequences.

Today, more than 3.4 billion people across the globe, roughly 46% of the world’s population, have internet access, and its impact is borne out by statistics: Every single day, more than 200 billion emails are sent, 140,000 websites created and 500 million tweets posted. But behind each email, website and tweet are people. Fundamentally, the internet is the platform for creativity and innovation that has resulted in positive economic and social impact. So it will probably come as a surprise to many that, according to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. That’s worrisome and prompts the question, What’s going on?

According to Freedom House, many countries are increasing service restrictions or shutdowns of their networks to block “a growing diversity of topics and online activities.” Of the 65 countries examined in the report, 24 impeded access to their citizens’ social media and communication tools. That’s a nearly 37% increase from 2015.

And in addition to escalating censorship, the number of countries that have arrested citizens for engaging in online communication deemed menacing to state operations increased 50% since 2013. These “offenses” can be as simple as liking or linking to material, on Facebook or Twitter, that is considered controversial. It’s important to note that this kind of targeting isn’t aimed just at human rights activists; more and more average users find themselves in the cross hairs of government crackdowns on speech.

This continued escalation of online restrictions is extremely unsettling. Indeed, the evolving practice by some governments of inducing all-out network shutdowns, often in the name of national security or public order, will have potentially irreversible and society-wide consequences.

Freedom House’s latest report confirms that in 2015, governments in 15 countries temporarily shut down access to the entire internet or mobile phone networks. This includes shutting down the internet during “politically contentious” times to block citizens from disseminating information through social media.

The economic implications of network shutdowns are equally destructive. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, network shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion U.S. annually. Key examples of countries that lost money include India ($968 million), Saudi Arabia ($465 million), Morocco ($320 million), Iraq ($209 million) and Brazil ($116 million). Additionally, separate analysis by Deloitte Consulting for the Global Network Initiative estimated shutdowns to cost $23.6 million for every 10 million citizens in highly connected countries and $6.6 million per every 10 million citizens in countries with lower access.

The ramifications of these moves from a social and humanitarian perspective are equally alarming. This tactic eliminates one of the major components needed to get the next billion people connected: trust. The Internet Society believes trust plays a key role in whether those who don’t currently use the internet see its value and believe it can improve their lives. Without trust, the internet’s full potential simply cannot be realized and developed.

Policymakers have a choice to make about which path to take in developing internet policies. One path leads to an open and trusted internet with all the social and economic benefits it brings. The other path leads to an increasingly closed off and fragmented network that fails to drive growth. One path to opportunity, the other to stagnation.

This year’s, “Freedom on the Net” report underscores that, even in 2016, our global internet community still has a long way to go to ensure that billions of citizens have adequate and properly functioning access to this incredible platform. We hope this report will serve as a warning to policymakers and industry leaders. We must not take the promise of the internet for granted. The successes our world experiences each day from the internet — economic, social and political — depend on it.

This article originally appeared in Computerworld.

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Freedom on the Net Report

Encryption Human Rights Internet Governance

Freedom on the Internet: Where does your country stand?

Out of the 3 billion users on the Internet, how many can trust that their online communications will not be monitored or censored? How many feel safe that they can express their opinions online and will not be arrested for their ideas? How many feel confident in communicating anonymously online?

For us this is a key element of an Internet of opportunity: Internet access is only meaningful if people can trust that their fundamental rights will be respected and protected online as well as offline. Access and trust go together: they can’t be considered as separate parts.

Released today, Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report offers a stark, and concerning, view on the current status of online freedoms. Out of the 65 countries assessed, the report concludes that Internet freedom in the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. Governments that had already expanded their arsenal of tools for controlling the online sphere are now strengthening their application of these methods.

Key trends identified in the report include:

  • Many governments are further shifting the burden of censorship to private companies by pressing them to remove content, even pushing them to proactively monitor their networks. Smaller local companies have little choice but to comply, whereas some international businesses have been more successful in addressing some government requests without resorting to outright takedown. The Internet Society doesn’t believe that companies’ primary role should be to police content online.
  • Surveillance has been on the rise globally, with governments in 14 of 65 countered having passed new laws to increased surveillance over the past year. Related to this, bans and restrictions on encryption and anonymity tools are being more common. The Internet Society believes that these developments hurt Internet users’ trust.

There are some notes of hope however: 15 countries registered overall improvements as part of the Report’s assessment. The year’s biggest gains occurred in Sri Lanka following the January 2015 elections, with unblocked websites and ceasing of prosecutions of Internet users. Cuba also registered an improvement after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States. Research also shows that widespread adoption of HTTPS (TLS) has made the blocking of specific content more difficult.

At the Internet Society, we believe in the power of the Internet to bring all of us closer together. We believe the Internet is a tool that can empower everyone to express their true potential. In practice, that means anything from creating the next successful global app, finding educational treasures online, revolutionizing trade, to simply staying in touch with family and friends at the reach of a button. As we work with many others around the world to bring the rest of the world online, we firmly  believe that the respect and protection of online freedoms is a pillar of trust, itself the basis of all economic and social exchanges online.

We encourage those countries who have made concrete steps toward an open and rights-respecting Internet to go further on this direction. And in those countries where steps have been taken away from an open Internet, we ask those governments – and citizens within those countries – to re-examine the consequences of those actions and move toward an Internet where opportunity is available to everyone.

Where does your country stand in the 2015 Freedom on the Net report?  And what will you do to help improve that standing?