Press release October 4, 2023
NEW REPORT: Advances in Artificial Intelligence Are Amplifying a Crisis for Human Rights Online
Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year as conditions deteriorated in 29 countries and improved in 20 others.
WASHINGTON—While advances in artificial intelligence (AI) offer benefits for society, they have also been used to increase the scale and efficiency of digital repression. According to Freedom House’s new report—Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence—governments are leveraging automated systems to strengthen their information controls and hone forms of online censorship. Simultaneously, distributors of disinformation have turned to AI tools to fabricate images, audio, and text, further blurring the lines between reality and deception.
The report finds that while innovations in AI contributed to the 13th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom, older forms of digital repression continued to proliferate. Iran suffered the year’s worst score decline as authorities shut down internet services and blocked social media to stifle antigovernment protests. In two record highs, people in at least 55 countries faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, and governments in 41 countries blocked websites hosting political, social, and religious speech. Both practices persisted in China, which retained its title as the world’s worst environment for internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year.
“AI can be used to supercharge censorship, surveillance, and the creation and spread of disinformation,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “This is a critical issue for our time, as human rights online are a key target of today’s autocrats. Democratic states should bolster their regulation of AI to deliver more transparency, provide effective oversight mechanisms, and prioritize the protection of human rights.”
The report calls on policymakers and their civic and private-sector partners to gain momentum in protecting overall internet freedom, especially as AI technology augments the forces driving the multiyear decline. An effective defense of internet freedom requires not just developing AI governance systems, but also addressing long-standing threats to privacy, free expression, and access to information that have corroded the broader digital environment.
“When designed and deployed safely and fairly, AI can help people evade authoritarian censorship, counter disinformation, and document human rights abuses,” said report coauthor Allie Funk, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “The lessons we have collectively learned from the past decade of internet policy discussions—regarding government oversight, the need for robust global civil society engagement, and the problem of overreliance on self-regulation—provide a promising roadmap for this new era.”
Key report findings
- Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year. The environment for human rights online deteriorated in 29 countries, while only 20 countries registered net gains. The largest decline on the report’s 100-point scale occurred in Iran (−5), followed by the Philippines (−4) and then Belarus (−3), Costa Rica (−3), and Nicaragua (−3). For the ninth consecutive year, China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom, a title that Myanmar came close to capturing in this year’s report.
- Attacks on free expression grew more common around the world. In a record 55 of the 70 countries covered by Freedom on the Net, people were imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for expressing their political, social, or religious viewpoints, while people were physically assaulted or killed for their online commentary in 41 countries. The most egregious cases occurred in Myanmar and Iran, whose authoritarian regimes carried out death sentences against people convicted of crimes related to online expression.
- Generative AI threatens to supercharge online disinformation campaigns. Governments in at least 47 countries deployed commentators to manipulate online discussions in their favor during the coverage period, double the number from a decade ago. Meanwhile, AI-based tools that can fabricate text, audio, and imagery have quickly grown more sophisticated, accessible, and easy to use, spurring a concerning escalation of the associated disinformation tactics. Over the past year, the new technology was utilized in at least 16 countries to sow doubt, smear opponents, or influence public debate.
- AI has allowed governments to enhance and refine their online censorship. The world’s most technically advanced authoritarian governments have responded to innovations in AI chatbot technology, attempting to ensure that the applications comply with or strengthen their censorship systems. Legal frameworks in at least 22 countries mandate that digital platforms deploy machine learning to remove disfavored political, social, and religious speech. AI, however, has not completely displaced older methods of information control. Governments in a record 41 countries blocked websites with content that should be protected under free expression standards within international human rights law.
- To protect internet freedom, democracy’s supporters must adapt the lessons learned from past internet policy challenges and apply them to AI. Democracies’ overreliance on self-regulation by private companies has left people’s rights exposed to a variety of threats in the digital age, and a shrinking of resources in the tech sector could exacerbate the deficiency. To protect the free and open internet, democratic policymakers—working side by side with civil society experts from around the world—should establish strong, human rights–based standards for both state and nonstate actors that develop or deploy AI tools, including robust transparency and independent oversight.
Key policy recommendations
The report identifies steps that policymakers, regulators, and tech companies can take to foster internet freedom. The recommendations for governments include:
- Promote free expression and access to information. Governments should maintain access to internet services and digital platforms, particularly during elections, protests, and periods of unrest or conflict. Legitimate risks posed by social media platforms can be addressed by strengthening legal requirements for transparency, data privacy, and platform responsibility.
- Defend information integrity in the age of AI. Regulations covering AI should embed human rights principles, deliver more transparency regarding system design and deployment, and empower independent regulators and judiciaries to conduct oversight. Developing detection software for AI-generated content will become more important as these tools grow more sophisticated and widely used.
- Strengthen data privacy. Governments should pass comprehensive data privacy laws that minimize the personal information companies may collect and how it can be used, including with respect to algorithmic recommendation systems and generative AI.
- Combat intrusive government surveillance. Stronger protections are needed so that state surveillance—including the use of AI-enabled monitoring tools such as facial recognition and social media surveillance—are grounded in the human rights principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality. Governments should also safeguard end-to-end encryption, which is necessary for the security of activists, journalists, and ordinary users around the world.
- Protect a free and open internet. A successful defense of the free, open, and interoperable internet will depend on coordination among democracies. Donor governments should also establish internet freedom programming as a vital component of their democracy assistance projects in other countries.
Freedom on the Net is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere. The project assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of the world’s internet users. This report, the 13th in its series, covered developments between June 2022 and May 2023. More than 85 analysts and advisers contributed to this year’s edition, using a standard methodology to determine each country’s internet freedom score on a 100-point scale, with 21 separate indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Maryam Iftikhar at [email protected] or (202) 747-7064.
Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.
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