Governments worldwide are stepping up use of online tools, in many cases inspired by China’s model, to suppress dissent and tighten their grip on power, a human rights watchdog study found Thursday.
The annual Freedom House study of 65 countries found global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018, amid a rise in what the group called “digital authoritarianism.”
The Freedom on the Net 2018 report found online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly “poisoned” the digital space, while the unbridled collection of personal data is infringing on privacy.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
“This pattern poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”
Chinese officials have held sessions on controlling information with 36 of the 65 countries assessed, and provided telecom and surveillance equipment to a number of foreign governments, Freedom House said.
The accusations made by Freedom House are “without basis, unprofessional, irresponsible, and have ulterior motives,” said Chinese foreign ministry official spokesman Lu Kang at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Cyberspace is complex, he added, and requires “the global community, including governments, businesses, think tanks and media to adopt a constructive attitude to maintain it.”
The report found 17 governments approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting “fake news,” while 18 countries increased surveillance or weakened encryption protection to more closely monitor their citizenry.
According to the researchers, internet freedom declined in 26 countries from June 2017 to May 2018. Gains were seen in 19 countries, most of them minor.
– China’s ‘techno-dystopia’ –
One of the greatest threats, Freedom House said, is efforts by China to remake the digital world in its “techno-dystopian” image.
It cited a sweeping Chinese cybersecurity requirement that local and foreign companies “immediately stop transmission” of banned content, and compels them to ensure that data on Chinese users is hosted within the country.
This has been followed by “hundreds” of new directives on what people can and cannot do online, and tighter controls on the use of VPNs to evade detection.
Internet freedom is in decline across much of the globe as various governments crack down on dissent and so-called fake news, according to an annual report from Freedom House, a nonprofit that receives much of its funding from the U.S. government.
Among the group’s observations:
China is not only continuing to restrict online speech within its own borders, but also providing seminars and tours to delegations from other countries, where it promotes its restrictive techniques and tools. “While it is not always clear what transpires during such seminars, a training for Vietnamese officials in April 2017 was followed in 2018 by the introduction of a cybersecurity law that closely mimics China’s own law,” according to the report. “Increased activity by Chinese companies and officials in Africa similarly preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda and Tanzania over the past year.” Other countries and multinational companies have previously found a lucrative opportunity in exporting censorship tools.
The U.S. saw a decline in internet freedom as FCC net neutrality rules were repealed and broad surveillance provisions were renewed by Congress. “Despite an online environment that remains vibrant, diverse, and free, disinformation and hyperpartisan content continued to be of pressing concern in the United States, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections,” according to the report.
More countries are restricting online speech in the name of combating “fake news.” The Philippines has proposed a law to criminalize the malicious spread of fake news, countries including Bangladesh and Rwanda have cracked down on live streamers and bloggers, and more countries are requiring website operators and high-traffic social media accounts to register or receive permits from the government.
Several countries are restricting VPNs and require that citizen data be stored locally, reversing the international nature of the internet. This trend is sometimes referred to as a growing “splinternet.”
On the bright side, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation is serving as a model for privacy regulations around the world.
Mr Blair said EU and US should make tech giant pay fairer tax and protect data
The ex Labour leader said the rules need to be rewritten for the digital age
It comes amid growing anger at the amounts of tax paid by digital companies
Chancellor said UK will be one of the first countries to impose new digital tax
The ex Prime Minister said the EU and America should set up new regulators to force the companies to pay fairer tax rates and do more to protect people’s data.
His intervention comes amid growing alarm that Silicon Valley giants are paying paltry amounts of tax in countries where they rake in huge revenues.
While the Facebook data harvesting scandal, which saw the profiles of 87 million people improperly shared, sparked calls for stronger privacy laws.
Philip Hammond announced on Monday that Britain is set to become one of the first countries in the world to impose a new ‘digital tax’ on tech giants.
And in an article, Mr Blair has called for the two Western blocs to go further and fundamentally rewrite ‘the rules for the internet age’.