Freedom House Celebrates Falling Internet Freedom Amid Pandemic

Freedom House: Democracy Scores for Most Countries Weaken for 12th Consecutive Year

According to the organization, many governments are using the crisis as an excuse to tighten restrictions and introduce new surveillance tools.

Human rights organization Freedom House notes the drop in the level of Internet freedom amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a report released on Thursday «Freedom on the web» for 2020, governments around the world are using the pandemic as a front to expand Internet surveillance and collect user data, censor criticism, and create new technological systems of social control.

The rapid and uncontrolled deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) and biometric surveillance to address the health crisis has created new risks to human rights, the organization said. Contact tracing or quarantine applications have been deployed in 54 of the 65 countries covered by the report. However, only a few countries have effective mechanisms to protect personal data from abuse by the state or the private sector..

«Pandemic increases societal dependence on digital technologies in an era when the internet is becoming less free, – notes Freedom House President Michael Abramovitz. – Without proper guarantees of confidentiality and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily used for political repression.».

One of the authors of the report, Adrian Shabaz, notes that laws adopted at a time of crisis tend to persist in the future..

Political leaders also use the pandemic as a pretext to censor bad news, arrest critics, and harass ethnic and religious groups. In at least 45 countries, activists, journalists and other members of the public have been detained or charged with criminal offenses for online comments related to the pandemic. At least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to cover up unfavorable epidemiological statistics, allegations of corruption and other content related to COVID-19.

According to Freedom House, the most aggressive approach was taken by the Chinese authorities, which for the sixth year in a row has been ranked first in the list of countries with the most severe restrictions on Internet freedom.. «Pandemic normalizes digital authoritarianism that the Chinese Communist Party has long sought to embrace broadly», – organization notes.

«The health crisis lays the foundation for the future police state, – warns Abramovitz. – Collective action is needed to prevent a world in which governments can suppress pro-democracy movements and peaceful protests using powerful databases and biometric surveillance».

Freedom House Celebrates Falling Internet Freedom Amid Pandemic

According to the authors of the report, the level of Internet freedom in the United States has been declining for the fourth year in a row. Amid historic protests against racial injustice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, increased surveillance by federal and local law enforcement agencies has jeopardized constitutional freedoms, and several people have been falsely charged with online demonstration-related activities. Recent decrees to regulate social media have jeopardized the United States’ position as a global leader in Internet freedom. What’s more, the country’s online space is awash with politicized disinformation, inflammatory content and dangerous disinformation, the report says..

The report’s authors note a number of other worrying trends. For example, the Russian authorities passed a law to isolate the country from the global Internet during emergencies, and the Iranian government severed international ties to hide the tough Iranian police response to mass protests. The authorities in Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey have enacted or considered regulations requiring companies to store user data internally, effectively making it easier for law enforcement agencies to access confidential information. Most recently, the US and Indian governments banned popular Chinese apps.

«While these actions were taken in response to real concerns about security and human rights, they are arbitrary and disproportionate and legitimize the Chinese authorities’ claims that each state should control its own “national internet”», – organization notes.

The report covers only 65 countries, which, however, account for 87 percent of Internet users worldwide. The report focuses on events from June 2019 to May 2020

Freedom House Celebrates Falling Internet Freedom Amid Pandemic

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