Press release September 21, 2021
NEW REPORT: Global Battle over Internet Regulation Has Major Implications for Human Rights
Freedom on the Net 2021 finds that while some democratic governments have made good-faith attempts to regulate the technology industry, state intervention in the digital sphere worldwide has contributed to the 11th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom.
Governments around the world are increasingly asserting their authority over technology platforms, forcing businesses to comply with censorship and surveillance and contributing to an 11th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom, according to Freedom on the Net 2021, the annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom released today by Freedom House.
Global norms shifted dramatically toward greater state intervention in the digital sphere over the past year. Of the 70 states covered by Freedom on the Net 2021, 48 pursued legal or administrative action against technology companies. Some measures reflected legitimate attempts to mitigate online harms, rein in misuse of data, or end manipulative market practices. Many governments, however, proposed new policies that obliged businesses to remove content and share personal data with authorities, at great cost to free expression, privacy, and public accountability.
This change in the balance of power between companies and states has come amid a historic crackdown on freedom of expression online. In 56 countries, officials arrested or convicted people for their online speech. Governments suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, most often during times of political turmoil such as protests and elections. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors.
“The rights of internet users around the world, especially the rights to free expression and privacy, are being massively violated as a result of recent state actions,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Instead of using regulation to curb the immense power of tech companies, many governments are wielding it for their own repressive purposes.”
The decision by several platforms to deactivate the accounts of outgoing US president Donald Trump—in the wake of the January 6 assault on the Capitol—intensified concerns about the arbitrary power of a few firms to shape political debate, as well as their responsibility to stem offline violence. The move sparked a plethora of new regulatory and legislative proposals, including bad-faith attempts to prevent companies from moderating the accounts of politicians and state-run media. Tech companies faced high-profile showdowns with illiberal and authoritarian leaders in India, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkey that will have global implications for the future of free expression online.
“In these high-stakes battles between governments and tech companies, human rights risk becoming the main casualties,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy at Freedom House. “Given the examples to date, you can hardly blame people for being skeptical that government regulation will lead to greater protection of their rights online. Regulations should ensure that power does not accumulate in the hands of a few dominant actors, whether in government or the private sector.”
Internet freedom plummeted by 14 points in Myanmar—the largest annual decline ever recorded on Freedom on the Net’s 100-point scale—after the military refused to accept the results of the November 2020 general elections and launched a deadly coup in February 2021. Electoral disputes also led to major internet freedom declines in Belarus, where authoritarian incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory in a fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, and Uganda, where authorities shut off the internet and blocked social media platforms during marred general elections in January 2021. In addition, officials in both Myanmar and Belarus sought to silence independent online media by shutting down news outlets and harassing, assaulting, and torturing online journalists.
“Governments everywhere are invoking a vague need to retake control of the internet—whether from foreign powers, multinational corporations, or even civil society,” said Shahbaz. “In the absence of a shared vision for a free and open internet, many states are imposing restrictions on the free flow of information across borders, denying people access to life-changing tools based solely on their location. This fragmentation is diminishing the emancipatory power of the internet.”
“The daunting complexity of internet regulation makes it all the more important for democracies to take the lead and set a high bar by introducing regulatory approaches that protect human rights online and preserve a free and open internet,” said Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House. “The laissez-faire approach to the tech industry spurred some forms of innovation, but it has also created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance. Democratic governments should pursue well-crafted regulations that tackle these problems while protecting people’s rights to express themselves, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account.”
- Global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year. The greatest deteriorations were documented in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda, where state forces cracked down amid electoral and constitutional crises.
- Governments clashed with technology companies on users’ rights. Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, and competition over the past year. 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.
- Free expression online is under unprecedented strain. More governments arrested users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before. Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors.
- China ranks as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row. Chinese authorities imposed draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting, and mundane daily communications. The COVID-19 pandemic remains one of the most heavily censored topics. Officials also cracked down on the country’s tech giants, citing their abuses related to competition and data protection, though the campaign further concentrated power in the hands of the authoritarian state.
- The United States’ score declined for the fifth consecutive year. False, misleading, and manipulated information continued to proliferate online, even affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results. The new administration took promising steps to enforce stronger protections for internet users.
- State intervention must protect human rights online and preserve an open internet. The emancipatory power of the internet depends on its egalitarian nature. To counter digital authoritarianism, democracies should ensure that regulations enable users to express themselves freely, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account.
Freedom on the Net 2021 assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of internet users worldwide. The report focused on developments that occurred between June 2020 and May 2021. Detailed country reports, data on 21 internet freedom indicators, and policy recommendations can be found at freedomonthenet.org.
Freedom on the Net 2021: The Global Drive to Control Big Tech
In the high-stakes battle between states and technology companies, the rights of internet users have become the main casualties, according to Freedom on the Net 2021, the annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom released by Freedom House.