Press release December 15, 2020
Report: Amid Global Decline, China Remains World’s Worst Abuser of Internet Freedom in 2020
For the sixth consecutive year, China confirmed its position as the worst abuser of internet freedom in Freedom on the Net 2020, published in October. This page provides an update on global and China-linked findings.
Governments around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to expand online surveillance and data collection, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control, according to Freedom on the Net 2020, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom, released in October by Freedom House.
The rapid and unchecked rollout of artificial intelligence (AI) and biometric surveillance to address the public health crisis has created new risks for human rights. Smartphone apps for contact tracing or quarantine compliance have been introduced in 54 of the 65 countries assessed in this report. Few countries possess effective mechanisms for protecting personal data against abusive practices by the state or the private sector.
Political leaders are also using the pandemic as a pretext to censor unfavorable news, arrest critics, and scapegoat ethnic and religious groups. In at least 45 countries, activists, journalists, and other members of the public were arrested or charged with criminal offenses for online speech related to the pandemic. Governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations, and other COVID-19-related content.
No government has taken a more aggressive approach to controlling information than China’s, which was found to be the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a sixth consecutive year. Censorship and surveillance were pushed to unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls over hundreds of millions of internet users, including in response to persistent antigovernment protests in Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic that began in the city of Wuhan.
At the center of the official cover-up that enabled COVID-19 to spread globally were the regime’s restrictions on internet freedom, particularly police interrogations of and forced retractions by medical professionals who shared early reports on social media of a SARS-like illness in the city. Chinese authorities have 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. The pandemic is normalizing the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese Communist Party has long sought to mainstream.
Despite the tighter constraints and risk of criminal penalties, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and ordinary internet users took courageous action to trace the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, report from within the locked-down city of Wuhan, share information on other sensitive topics, and archive deleted news reports.
In addition to COVID-19-related content, the Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, critical reporting on Chinese Communist Party leaders, and the mass detention of Uighur and other Muslims in Xinjiang were among the most heavily censored topics in 2019 and 2020. People discussing these topics online faced legal and extralegal reprisals, including arbitrary detention, torture, and draconian prison terms.
Freedom on the Net 2020 assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide. The report focuses on developments that occurred between June 2019 and May 2020.
Key Global Findings:
- Internet freedom declined for the 10th consecutive year. Of the 65 countries covered by Freedom on the Net, 26 worsened and 22 registered gains. Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, India, Ecuador, and Nigeria suffered the largest declines during the coverage period.
- Governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on free expression and access to information. Authorities censored independent reporting on the virus in 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries. In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a justification to impose vague or overly broad restrictions on speech. Residents of at least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns, with governments denying certain population groups access to life-saving information in a cruel form of collective punishment.
- The public health crisis is laying a foundation for the future surveillance state. In at least 30 countries, governments are invoking the pandemic to engage in mass surveillance in direct partnership with telecommunications providers and other companies. Smartphone apps for contact tracing or quarantine compliance have been introduced in at least 54 countries, with few or no protections against abuse. Authorities are rolling out facial recognition technology and automated decision-making with minimal safeguards to protect privacy or prevent police abuse.
- “Cyber sovereignty” is on the rise. Russian authorities passed legislation to isolate the country from the global internet during national emergencies, and Iran’s government severed international connections in order to hide a violent police response to mass protests. Legislators in Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey passed or considered regulations requiring companies to keep user data from leaving the country, effectively granting law enforcement agencies easier access to sensitive information. More recently, the governments of the United States and India ordered bans on popular Chinese-owned apps; while these actions came in response to genuine security and human rights concerns, they were arbitrary and disproportionate, and served to legitimize calls by Chinese officials for each state to oversee its own “national internet.”
Key China Findings:
- Scores: China was rated as Not Free, receiving a total score of 10 out of 100 (with 0 representing the lease free and 100 the most free). The report does not assess events in Hong Kong or Tibet. Freedom on the Net assess countries across three categories, for which China’s scores were:
- Obstacles to Access: 8 out of 25
- Limits on Content: 2 out of 35
- Violations of User Rights: 0 out of 40.
- More people could access high-speed internet. According to government figures, China added 49 million new internet users since June 2019, including 50 million subscribers to fifth-generation (5G) technology for mobile networks—the most in the world
- The government ramped up digital repression during the COVID-19 pandemic. The full spectrum of internet controls were put into effect to police information about the coronavirus outbreak and the government’s response to it, including restrictions on the use of virtual private networks, the removal of online content, the closing of social media accounts, and the arresting and charging of internet users for their online speech.
- People across Chinese society faced harsh reprisals for their online expression. A wide array of individuals were targeted with legal and extralegal reprisals—including arbitrary detention, torture, and draconian prison terms—for their online activity. In addition to users who shared information about COVID-19 or criticized the government’s response to the pandemic, people sentenced to prison terms—some of over 10 years—included online journalists, critics of Xi Jinping, supporters of Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, operators of human rights websites, and members of ethnic and religious minority groups like Uighurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners.
- Nationalist voices gained prominence at the expense of rights advocates. As a result of intensifying controls, the online presence of independent civil society, human rights documentation, and prodemocracy viewpoints declined. Encouraged by authorities, the volume and aggressiveness of nationalistic voices increased, contributing to more self-censorship.
- Private companies helped facilitate government surveillance. New evidence emerged of Chinese technology companies systematically aiding government surveillance, including through the development of mandatory or semimandatory propaganda and public health mobile phone applications that were found to collect data and transfer it to authorities. Chinese technology firms are also creating “key individual” databases through which security forces in different parts of the country can target certain people for particular scrutiny.
- Authorities enhanced internet controls within mainland China about the Hong Kong protest movement. The Chinese government and private companies increasingly blocked or removed online content related to the Hong Kong protests and subsequent government restrictions in the territory for China-based internet users. Activists, businesspeople, and members of the public supporting the protests online also faced legal and extralegal reprisal.
Detailed country reports, data on 21 internet freedom indicators, and policy recommendations can be found at freedomonthenet.org. The full China country report in English can be found at https://freedomhouse.org/country/china/freedom-net/2020.