Governments worldwide are stepping up use of online tools, in many cases inspired by China’s model, to suppress dissent and tighten their grip on power, a human rights watchdog study released yesterday found.
The annual Freedom House study of 65 countries found global Internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year this year, amid a rise in what the group called “digital authoritarianism.”
The Freedom on the Net 2018 report found online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly “poisoned” the digital space, while the unbridled collection of personal data is infringing on privacy.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz said. “This pattern poses a threat to the open Internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”
Chinese officials have held sessions on controlling information with 36 of the 65 countries assessed, and provided telecom and surveillance equipment to a number of foreign governments, Freedom House said.
The report found that 17 governments approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting “fake news,” while 18 countries increased surveillance or weakened encryption protection to more closely monitor their citizenry.
Internet freedom declined in 26 countries from June last year to May, while gains were seen in 19 countries, most of them minor, the researchers said.
One of the greatest threats, Freedom House said, is efforts by China to remake the digital world in its “techno-dystopian” image.
It cited a sweeping Chinese cybersecurity that requires that local and foreign companies “immediately stop transmission” of banned content, and compels them to ensure that data on Chinese users is hosted within the country.
This has been followed by “hundreds” of new directives on what people can and cannot do online, and tighter controls on the use of virtual private networks to evade detection.
The report said leaked documents and other evidence suggest as many as 1 million Muslims could be held in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang Province, many as a result of non-violent online activities.
China appears to be using its big tech firms involved in telecom infrastructure to extend its dominance and gain an edge in surveillance, Freedom House said.
Companies such as Huawei Technologies Co (華為) — largely banned from contracts in the US and Australia — are building infrastructure in many parts of the world, including Africa and Latin America, said Freedom House board chairman Michael Chertoff, a former US secretary of homeland security.
“This opens up a potential for exploiting information in these countries by having technological backdoors that can be used by the Chinese government to collect intelligence,” Chertoff said on a conference call.
The researchers said online freedom is facing threats in democratic as well as authoritarian states.
India led the world in the number of Internet shutdowns, with more than 100 reported incidents this year so far, claiming that the moves were needed to halt the flow of disinformation and incitement to violence.
“Cutting off Internet service is a draconian response, particularly at a time when citizens could need it the most, whether to dispel rumors, check in with loved ones, or avoid dangerous areas,” Freedom House researcher Adrian Shahbaz said. “While deliberately falsified content is a genuine problem, some governments are increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a pretense to consolidate their control over information and suppress dissent.”
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