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Report: COVID-19 used as pretext to crack down on internet freedom

Moscow opposition rally "for the social rights of Muscovites" 2 March 2013, Trubnaya Square (Bogomolov.PL/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Internet freedom has declined for the 10th consecutive year as governments around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic as a “cover” to expand online surveillance, crack down on dissent, and build new technological systems to control society, Freedom House says in a new report.

The Washington-based human rights watchdog’s annual Freedom Of The Net report, released on October 14, said the authorities in dozens of countries have cited COVID-19 “to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive.”

As a result, Internet freedom has worsened in 26 of the 65 countries covered by the report, while only 22 registered gains.

And just 20 percent of the estimated 3.8 billion people using the Internet live in countries with a free Internet, according to the democracy research group.

Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, India, Ecuador, and Nigeria suffered the largest declines during the coverage period — between June 2019 and May 2020. Internet freedom worsened in the United States for the fourth consecutive year.

“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the Internet is becoming less and less free,” Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz.

“Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression.”

Freedom On The Net measures the level of Internet freedom in 65 countries, based on 21 indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Each country receives a numerical score from 100 to 0 that serves as the basis for an Internet-freedom-status designation of “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”

China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year.

The report said authorities “combined low- and high-tech tools not only to manage the outbreak of the coronavirus, but also to deter Internet users from sharing information from independent sources and challenging the official narrative.”

These trends are showing a growing trend toward Chinese-style “digital authoritarianism” globally and a “splintering” of the Internet as each government imposes its own regulations, it said.

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran also fell into the “not free” category.

So-called cybersovereignty — governments’ efforts to exercise control over the Internet within their own borders — has been on the rise across the world, including in Russia, where the Russian government continued to “fine-tune its online censorship apparatus.”

Russian authorities continued to persecute Internet users for their online activities and moved to restrict anonymous communications, blocking several encrypted e-mail services, Freedom House said.

In Iran, the government ordered a near-total shutdown following waves of protests across the country in November 2019, the report says.

Authorities continued to arrest and prosecute online journalists, activists, and citizens for content posted online, block access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms, and disrupt Internet access during politically sensitive events, “aided by their continued control over the internet infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, legislators in countries like Pakistan “passed or considered regulations requiring companies to keep user data from leaving the country, effectively granting law enforcement agencies easier access to sensitive information.”

The online environment in Pakistan is “tightly controlled” by the government, the report said, citing Internet shutdowns, blocked websites, and arrests for activity online as the authorities’ “preferred tactics in their effort to suppress unwanted speech.”

In Kyrgyzstan, ranked as “partly free,” the violent arrest of former President Almazbek Atambaev led to a localized Internet shutdown, and several Kyrgyz journalists were “threatened or even attacked” in connection with a high-profile corruption investigation while their websites faced distributed denial-of-service attacks.

The Central Asian country’s authorities continued to prosecute users for their activities on social-media platforms, including under sometimes “spurious” charges of inciting hatred.

In the same category, Ukraine saw a number of “positive policy changes” since 2019, which “discontinued previous practices of administrative website-blocking.”

However, the report warned against a draft law on regulating disinformation that would “oblige users to only share information whose authenticity they have first verified, create a state body with vast powers to remove content, and implement provisions that drew criticism as restricting the media.”

The United States, Georgia, Armenia, and Hungary were among the countries ranked as “free”

The report said the United States saw its score decline in light of “enhanced government surveillance” by law enforcement against protest movements and executive orders on social-media regulations.