As democracies around the world struggle to hold back the rising tide of authoritarianism, a similar crisis is unfolding online. Three factors converged this year to make 2018 the eighth straight year that global internet freedom declined, according to an annual report from the nonprofit Freedom House: increasing censorship in response to disinformation, the widespread…
“The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence,” writes Adrian Shahbaz, lead author of the report. Analysts studied 65 countries, which together account for 87 percent of the world’s internet users, and rated each based on factors like barriers to access, limits on free expression, and violations of user rights and privacy. Since June 2017, the report found, internet freedom declined in 26 countries, while only 19 countries saw their scores improve. As a result, just 20 percent of the global internet population is considered “free.” The message is dire: Without significant effort on the part of tech companies, democratic nations, advocacy groups, the public, and the press, democracy might not survive the digital era.
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“Several years ago, the internet was really seen as a force for greater democratization, for pluralistic voices, and that it would put authoritarians on the back foot,” says Shahbaz. “Instead what we have seen over the past year is that many tyrants are channeling technology in order to consolidate power, smear government opponents, discredit the free press, and place activists and minorities under surveillance. Authoritarians are learning how they can use the internet for their own purposes in order to undermine democracy.”
But declines in internet freedom occurred in dictatorships and democracies alike. Freedom House downgraded both the Philippines and Kenya from “free” to “partly free.” And while the United States is still classified as a free country, the report calls out the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality, the re-authorization of the FISA Amendments Act, and the continuing problem of disinformation online as areas of concern.
The ‘China Model’
This year’s report is subtitled “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” and it places China at the vanguard of that movement. Not only does the country once again rank as the worst abuser of internet freedom, it is actively exporting its techno-dystopian model to other countries.
China has long used technology as an instrument of control, from its Great Firewall to, more recently, its developing social credit system and expanded use of facial recognition under President Xi Jinping. Last year the government began to implement a sweeping new cybersecurity law that broadly strengthens its surveillance and censorship powers while placing more restrictions on internet companies, including requirements to “immediately stop transmission” of banned content and to store all data on Chinese users within the country.
“This is the unraveling of the international order, this idea that there are these universal values of openness, of free expression, of privacy that should apply all around the world,” says Shahbaz. “China’s general perspective is that every country has its own cultural characteristics, its own values, and it should be free to follow its own model when it comes to governing not only itself but also the internet.”
To some degree, it’s already happening. As Nicholas Thompson and Ian Bremmer wrote in WIRED earlier this year, “There’s the freewheeling, lightly regulated internet dominated by the geeks of Silicon Valley. And then there’s China’s authoritarian alternative, powered by massive, home-grown tech giants as innovative as their Western counterparts.”
Those companies are active outside China, too. Since January 2017, Freedom House counted 38 countries where Chinese firms have built internet infrastructure, and 18 countries using AI surveillance developed by the Chinese. China has also hosted delegations from 36 countries for seminars on new media and internet policy. It’s the digital arm of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi’s trillion-dollar policy combining diplomacy with infrastructure-building. “China has effectively constructed its own Marshall Plan,” Thompson and Bremmer wrote, “one that may, in some cases, build surveillance states instead of democracies.”
Of the 65 countries Freedom House studied, 18 have instituted new measures to increase state surveillance since last year. Some of those measures, such as one passed in Vietnam, closely resemble China’s cybersecurity law. Even democracies, including the US, are “voicing their own determination to overcome encryption when national security is at stake,” the report notes.
This is just the beginning. As America has ceded its moral authority in the world, Shahbaz notes, China has risen to take its place. “More countries are going to seek to assert their national sovereignty on the internet. Every country might end up having its own internet. That’s really what the China Model is,” he says. “China is not looking for Myanmar or Uganda or Kazakhstan to come behind the Great Firewall.”
China’s model is not just at odds with democratic norms, the report notes, it may also represent a privacy risk: “As more of the world’s critical telecommunications infrastructure is built by China, global data may become more accessible to Chinese intelligence agencies through both legal and extralegal methods.” Shahbaz says this is something that should worry all Americans. Already, the United States has largely banned government personnel and contractors from using Huawei products. Australia and Japan followed suit with similar rules.
Co-opting Fake News
A number of countries have also followed China’s lead in censorship efforts—although there are other sources of inspiration too. “Fake news,” a term popularized by the president of the United States, has become a bludgeon that nations can use to silence their people. Seventeen countries in the report approved or proposed laws curbing free speech online in the name of fighting misinformation, from Egypt’s law requiring social media users with more than 5,000 followers to get licensed from the government, to Kenya’s outlawing of “fake news” online.
More than a dozen countries used “fake news” as a reason to jail journalists and dissidents this year, the report notes. In Rwanda a blogger received a 10-year prison sentence for writing about the 1994 genocide. In Bangladesh a journalist faces seven years in prison for a Facebook Livestream he posted about crackdowns on protests. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to silence an entire media organization, Rappler, calling the investigative news publication “fake news.”
This is a trend that hits closer to home, too. Earlier this month, President Trump questioned whetherSaturday Night Liveshould be legal.
Some countries, like India and Sri Lanka, have also used fake news as an excuse to cut off the internet or mobile networks, saying it was the only way to halt the spread of disinformation. Internet shutdowns are on the rise, according to advocacy group Access Now, which counted 188 shutdowns in 2018, up from 108 the year before. Disinformation is a real problem, but cutting off access to the internet entirely is never the right response, says Shahbaz. It denies people the means of communication “at a time when they may need them the most, whether to dispel rumors, check in with family, or avoid dangerous areas,” he writes.
Can the Trends Reverse?
This was a bleak year for internet freedom, and democracy in general, but all is not lost. To reverse the trend toward digital authoritarianism, civil society and governments must catch up to the ways in which the internet is being co-opted by tyrants to further oppression around the world.
The Freedom House report offers a number of recommendations for democracies to stand up for internet freedom and counter China’s messaging. Global governing bodies and countries must “ensure that all internet-related laws and practices adhere to international human rights law and standards,” it recommends, and sanction nations that restrict internet freedom. Nations must also enact strong data protection laws and give people control over how their data is used. The report points to one bright spot, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which, while not a perfect solution, is still “one of the most ambitious attempts to regulate data collection in the 21st century.”
But governments alone cannot fix this. Many of the social media apps that authoritarians have been able to weaponize against people and democracy were designed, Shahbaz says, with a certain amount of naivete. “These product design engineers perhaps were thinking about how to build the best product rather than how to protect users against the ways that it could be exploited,” he says. That has to change. The report recommends baking data protection into every aspect of the product design cycle.
Companies should conduct human rights assessments of their products before releasing them, the report concludes. They should be transparent about their content moderation and data sharing. And they should be wary of furthering the China Model, and instead keep pace with China’s innovations to provide non-Chinese alternatives for consumers, and by making apps and services that allow Chinese consumers to get around their own firewall.
The report also calls on civil society, including the media, to fight back against disinformation, the spread of Chinese-style censorship, and the erosion of online privacy. It is no longer a given that democracy can withstand the internet age. To ensure it does requires quick and sweeping action.
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