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Internet freedom in decline as governments crack down on free speech, tech companies

Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, or competition over the past year.

Global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year with the highest deterioration documented in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda where the State cracked down on the internet amid constitutional and electoral crises, said a report by Freedom House.

As for India, Freedom House termed the country ‘partly free’ and scored it 48 out of 100 — with 100 being the ‘most free’. To put things in perspective, Iceland scored the highest with 96 and China was last with 10 out of 100.

The report titled ‘Freedom On the Net 2021: The Global Drive to Control Big Tech’ gives insight as to how a growing number of governments across the world are asserting their authority over tech firms, often forcing businesses to comply with online censorship and surveillance. “These developments have contributed to an unprecedented assault on free expression online, causing global internet freedom to decline for a 11th consecutive year,” Adrian Shahbad and Allie Funk of Freedom House said in the report.

Key Findings

Source: Freedom House report

These are some of the report’s key findings —

  • US score declined for the 5th consecutive year: Freedom House attributed this to false claims that were circulated online which even affected the public acceptance of the 2020 US presidential election results.
  • 48 countries took on tech companies: Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, or competition over the past year, the report said.” With a few positive exceptions, the push to regulate the tech industry, which stems in some cases from genuine problems like online harassment and manipulative market practices, is being exploited to subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data,” the report added.
  • Free expression on the internet is under strain in at least 20 countries: The report found that officials in at least 2o countries blocked the internet and access to social media platforms. Additionally, authorities in at least 25 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data extraction technology from private vendors.

Deepening repression around electoral disputes: Report

  • Myanmar: Internet freedom plummeted by 14 points in Myanmar—the largest decline ever recorded in Freedom on the Net—after the military refused to accept the results of the November 2020 general elections. “Internet connectivity was cut off every night from then until April, and mobile services were suspended entirely beginning in March, leaving only fixed-line and wireless broadband services available to users during the day,” the report said.
  • Belarus: In Belarus, the report said, an electoral dispute led to a seven-point decline in internet freedom. The report said that the government repeatedly restricted access to the Internet, detained online activists, and ramped up social media surveillance.
  • Uganda: Internet freedom in Uganda decreased seven points after general elections in January 2021 that were marred by alleged irregularities. “Throughout the electoral period, a network of pro-government social media accounts flooded the online environment with manipulated information…” it added.

New laws enacted across countries to regulate platforms are problematic

Authorities in at least 24 countries passed or announced new laws or rules governing how platforms treat content… The most problematic measures may result in increased censorship of political dissent, investigative reporting, and expressions of ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender identity, particularly among marginalized communities — Freedom House report

Best and worst practices for tech regulation | Source: Freedom House report

India: The Information Technology Rules 2021 which include obligations for significant social media intermediaries find a mention in the report. Freedom House said that these obligations will “curb companies’ willingness to push back against state censorship requests that do not meet international human right standard”.

Turkey: Turkey’s new social media regulations came into effect in October 2020, the report said. Platforms with over a million daily users are required to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of being notified, or risk escalating penalties including fines, advertising bans, and limitations on bandwidth, the report said citing the Turkish law.

Indonesia: Indonesia’s Ministerial Regulation 5, enacted in November 2020, imposes new take-down and registration requirements on a broad array of tech companies regardless of their size, including social media apps, content-sharing services, and search engines, the report said. “Those not in compliance with the new regulation risk a range of penalties that include blocking and revocation of licenses,” it said.

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Russia: A January 2021 law introduced new fines for websites and platforms that fail to remove content the state deems “illegal,” while a February law reinforced platforms’ obligations to identify and remove banned content and required them to coordinate with the federal regulator, Roskomnadzor, regarding content moderation decisions, the report said.

Companies are being forced to hand over user data: Report

In at least 38 of the 70 countries assessed this year, governments initiated legal or administrative reforms affecting tech companies’ management of user data… The governments seeking information are now attempting to sidestep these jurisdictional barriers by forcing companies to store data on servers based within their borders, surrender personal data to law enforcement agencies with limited oversight, and circumvent the encryption of private communications — Freedom House report

Vietnam: The report pointed out Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law, which expands requirements for large and small online platforms to store data on Vietnamese servers, including users’ names, birth dates, nationality, identity cards, credit card numbers, biometric files, and health records.

  • Saudi Arabia: In October 2020, the report said Saudi Arabia published interim regulations intended “to ensure preservation of the digital national sovereignty over data.” Companies and government entities must obtain written approval from the government regulator before processing or transferring personal data outside of the country, the report stated.
  • Pakistan: Pakistan’s proposed Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, the latest version of which was published in November 2020, outlines requirements for social media companies to establish one or more data servers in the country, the Freedom House report said.
  • Egypt: Under a data protection law ratified in Egypt in July 2020, domestic and foreign entities must obtain a state license and appoint a local data protection officer to conduct cross-border data transfers.

Recommendations for governments: Protect privacy and security

  • Regulate the use of surveillance tools and the collection of personal information: Freedom House said that government surveillance programmes should adhere to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, a framework agreed upon by a broad consortium of civil society groups, industry leaders, and scholars for protecting users’ rights.
  • Enact robust data privacy legislation: The report said that governments should enact updated legal frameworks that safeguard user information. “Individuals should have control over their information, including the right to access it, delete it, and easily transfer it to the providers of their choosing,” it said.
  • Restrict the export of censorship and surveillance technology: “Democracies should place strict limits on the sale of technologies that enable monitoring, surveillance, interception, or collection of information and communications—including spyware, extraction technology, and systems whose machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence capabilities can be misused, and should consider new multilateral export controls” the report said.

Recommendations for companies

According to the report, companies should —

  • Ensure fair and transparent content moderation
  • Resist government orders to shut down internet connectivity or ban digital services
  • Adhere to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights
  • Engage in dialogue with civil society to understand the implications of company policies and products

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Written By

Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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