(Bloomberg) — The internet is less free than it was a decade ago, and it’s getting worse as some governments expand efforts to use social media to manipulate elections and monitor citizens, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy group.
While governments have monitored speech on social media for a long time, advances in artificial intelligence “have opened up new possibilities for automated mass surveillance,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Advances in AI are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance.”
The report, which was released Tuesday, included 65 countries, or about 87% of internet users. Freedom House concluded that global internet freedom has declined for the ninth consecutive year.
The report noted that in much of the world, there are obstacles and perils to using the internet. More than half of internet users live in countries where certain political, social, or religious content was blocked online. In addition, 71% of internet users live in countries where individuals were imprisoned for posting about political, social or religious issues on the internet.
Six years after leaking documents about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities, Edward Snowden believes the world is changing. He recognizes that people are more aware of privacy problems and angrier about them than ever, but he still seems to want people to take more time to understand the specific “abuse” being committed against them.
“People are quite frequently mad at the right people for the wrong reasons,” he said, speaking via video link at Web Summit in Lisbon on Monday. Snowden hit out at big tech companies, saying they make populations vulnerable by collecting data and allowing it to be accessed by governments.
“These people are engaged in abuse, particularly when you look at Google and Amazon, Facebook and their business model,” he said. “And yet every bit of it, they argue, is legal. Whether we’re talking about Facebook or the NSA, we have legalized the abuse of the person through the personal.”
Google, Amazon and Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Snowden is best known for lifting the lid on an NSA surveillance program known as Prism in 2013, leaking documents to journalists showing the extent to which people’s data was being collected by the US government and its allies. He fled first to Hong Kong, and was later granted asylum in Russia, where he still resides. Snowden believed the world had a right to know what he knew — but he’s not an obvious whistleblower, as he calls himself.
As he told it, he has always been a rule follower and goody-two-shoes — never getting drunk, never smoking a joint. He took the oaths he signed when he started working for the intelligence services seriously. So what changed?
“Many years later you find that what you are doing is that you’re in a conspiracy to violate that oath you took on that very first day,” Snowden said. “What do you do when you have contradicting obligations?”
What he witnessed, he said, was that rather than chasing the bad guys, the NSA had begun prospectively surveilling people before they had broken the law, and no one in a position of power tried to stop it because it benefited them.
“What do you do when the most powerful institutions in society have become the least accountable in society?” he asked himself. Society deserved to know, he thought, and so he spoke out.