Press release October 14, 2020
Report: Global Internet Freedom Declines in Shadow of Pandemic
Governments seize the opportunity to limit online speech and deploy new surveillance tools.
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 today 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.
“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the internet is becoming less and less free,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression.”
“History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to stick around,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy and a coauthor of the report. “As with 9/11, we will look back on COVID-19 as a moment when governments gained new, intrusive powers to control their populations.”
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 the public health crisis than China’s, which was found to be the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a sixth consecutive year. Chinese authorities 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.
“The health crisis is laying the foundation for a future surveillance state,” said Abramowitz, the Freedom House president. “We need collective action to prevent the emergence of a world where governments can smother prodemocracy movements and peaceful protests by exploiting big-data tools and biometric surveillance.”
“The dangers that AI surveillance poses to freedom and democracy are simply too grave to ignore,” Shahbaz added. “We should freeze the use of facial recognition and automated decision-making in sensitive areas such as law enforcement, health care, and education until we better understand the ways in which they perpetuate harmful biases and curtail human rights.”
This year also saw the slow-motion “splintering” of the internet accelerate into an all-out race toward “cyber sovereignty,” with more governments imposing restrictions on the flow of information across national borders. Both democratic and autocratic leaders imposed arbitrary bans on popular foreign apps, demanded that companies store data on local servers, and generally failed to develop transnational solutions that would preserve an open, free, and secure internet.
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. Detailed country reports, data on 21 internet freedom indicators, and policy recommendations can be found at freedomonthenet.org.
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.
- Internet freedom worsened in the United States for the fourth consecutive year. Amid historic protests against racial injustice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, growing surveillance by federal and local law enforcement has threatened constitutional freedoms, and several people faced spurious criminal charges for online activity related to the demonstrations. Executive orders on social media regulation, issued during and after the coverage period, imperiled the United States’ long-standing role as a global leader on internet freedom. Moreover, the country’s online sphere was flooded with politicized disinformation, inflammatory content, and dangerous misinformation, notably propagated by President Donald Trump himself.
- 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.”