Internet freedoms have taken a nose dive for the eighth year running, according to a report warning that authoritarian countries and populist leaders are exporting harmful attitudes and ideas around the world.
The US pro-democracy think tank Freedom House produces a report on internet freedoms each year. This year, it assessed 65 countries, and found freedoms had declined in 26 of them. Of the 19 that made improvements, most were only minor.
According to the report (PDF), the top-rated countries were Iceland and Estonia, with scores of 6 (the lower the better) and Canada, with a score of 15. They were followed by Germany (19), Australia (21) and the US – which slipped from a score of 21 to 22 thanks to repeals of net neutrality laws and a failure to reform sweeping surveillance rules. The UK was in the seventh spot, with a score of 23.
Unsurprisingly, China was the worst offender, with a score of 88 – and the report was at pains to emphasise the country's approach to censorship and surveillance was spreading across the world, saying it was "remak[ing] the world in its techno-dystopian image".
This year, Beijing took steps to propagate its model abroad by conducting large-scale trainings of foreign officials, providing technology to authoritarian governments, and demanding that international companies abide by its content regulations even when operating outside of China.
The country also established a new cybersecurity law this year, cracking down on attempts to circumvent the Great Firewall, as well as increasing its use of – and expertise in – surveillance technology.
Some large firms have acceded to Chinese demands. Delta, along with other airlines, listed Taiwan as part of China. Mercedes-Benz apologised for using a quote from the Dalai Lama on an Instagram ad.
China's demands – much like Russia's – that citizens' data is stored within its borders means "information can be accessed by security agencies", the report said – thus diminishing users' freedoms.
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It went on to say that China is encouraging other nations to follow in its footsteps, offering training to foreign governments and selling hardware and data analytics tools to governments with poor human rights records, which could also benefit Chinese spies.
"Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation," Freedom House said.
The report also claimed that, as China builds critical telecom infrastructure, data might become more accessible to the nation's intelligence agencies. These fears led the US to ban agencies from using certain Chinese products, including those of Huawei and ZTE.
But it isn't just China's attitudes and influence that is affecting worldwide internet freedoms: the "fake news" rhetoric – popularised by US president Donald Trump – is a handy hook for authoritarian governments to hang their regulatory hats on.
Seventeen governments are said to have approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting fake news.
Countries including Egypt and Iran rewrote media laws so they apply to social media, and have used this to jail critics and block foreign media and communications services. Cambodia requires all websites to register with the government, which can impose jail sentences of up to two years for spreading fake news online.
But, the report added, "even democracies are at risk, as the fervor over 'fake news' threatens to propel overreaching restrictions on freedom of expression and the outsourcing of key censorship decisions to ill-equipped and often opaque tech companies."
Nonetheless, in the face of rapidly spreading online propaganda that is widely accepted to have been used by Russia to influence democratic votes, along with increasing amounts of illegal content, governments like Germany are looking to impose regulation.
Requiring tech giants to interpret and take action on statutes, though, risks damaging freedom of expression – and makes them arbiters over what is and isn't allowed online.
Meanwhile, governments are increasing surveillance – 18 countries did so this year, often without a boost in independent oversight – and are looking for ways to overcome technologies that stand in their way.
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The obvious example here is encryption. This summer, the Five Eyes alliance again made its desire to access potential intel on encrypted devices or services known, warning that if the tech companies didn't cooperate they could always legislate.
The report did have some positive words for governments, though, praising the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, while calling on all policymakers to follow suit.
GDPR is the most successful innovation in years to have sprung from the European tech sector in years. California has launched its own flavour, and China brought out non-binding privacy regs at the end of May.
Freedom House also recommended that governments include human rights safeguards on AI strategies, impose sanctions on tech companies that are involved in human rights abuses, and set aside funds for "internet freedom emergencies" such as internet shutdowns.
Tech firms are told to be transparent about content moderation, label potential bot accounts as such and conduct human rights impact assessments when entering new international markets – a move some staff at companies like Amazon or Microsoft might want to see expanded to contracts on their home turf. ®