Another year has passed in the realm of digital freedom, leaving the global situation more and more precarious, especially in the context of various elections taking place throughout the world.
According to Freedom House, which surveyed 65 countries for its ‘Freedom on the Net 2017’ report (87% of the world’s Internet users), the state of the Internet freedom around the world has little cause for celebration, as this year continues to present a world where few societies give their citizens access to a free, uncensored Internet.
Thus, nearly half of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net 2017 experienced declines during the coverage period, while just 13 made progress, most of it minor. Less than one-quarter of users reside in countries where the internet is designated free, meaning there are no major obstacles to access, excessive restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights in the form of unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech.
However, in one of the world’s leading democracies, the United States, the use of “fake news”, automated “bot” accounts, and other manipulation methods gained particular attention and caused a decline in the country’s overall Internet freedom. While the online environment in the US remained generally free, it was troubled by a proliferation of fabricated news articles, as well as aggressive harassment of many journalists, both during and after the presidential election campaign.
The usual suspects and some unexpected improvements
Of the 65 countries assessed, 32 have been on an overall decline since June 2016. The biggest declines took place in Ukraine, Egypt, and Turkey.
China was the worst abuser of internet freedom for the third year in a row, followed by Syria and Ethiopia. The Chinese restrictions of 2017 included official orders to delete all online references to a newly discovered species of beetle named after Xi, which the censors reportedly found offensive given the beetle’s predatory nature.
Only 13 countries earned an improvement in their internet freedom score. In most cases, the gains were limited and did not reflect a broad shift in policy.
In Libya, for example, several news websites were unblocked, and unlike in previous years, no users were imprisoned for their online activity. In Bangladesh, there was no repetition of the government’s temporary 2015 blocking of popular apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Viber amid security concerns following the confirmation of death sentences against two Islamist leaders. And Uzbekistan, one of the most restrictive states assessed, improved slightly after the introduction of a new e-government platform designed to channel public grievances, which prompted greater citizen engagement.
The elections issue
Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played a key role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.
One tool used for online manipulation during elections throughout the world was the proliferation of fake news. Freedom House documented prominent examples of fake news around elections or referendums in at least 16 of the 65 countries assessed. For instance, government agents in Venezuela regularly used manipulated footage to disseminate lies about opposition protesters on social media, creating confusion and undermining the credibility of the opposition movement ahead of elections.
Social media was another platform used for the manipulation of voters. An estimate of 30,000 fake accounts were removed from Facebook ahead of the 2017 French elections.
Governments have also resorted to mobile shutdowns to suppress opposition groups during elections. For example, in Zambia, mobile broadband networks were reportedly disrupted for up to 72 hours in opposition-held regions following protests by opposition supporters who accused the electoral commission of fraud.
A few conclusions
What was once a given is slowly becoming a luxury.
Abuses in our digital freedom now occur in the most unexpected of places. The dismantling of net neutrality, for instance, if signed into law, could represented an unprecedented form of capitalist censorship, an idea that we were only used to associate with more repressive forms of government.
At CyberGhost, we continue to fight for digital freedom, as we consider it part of everyone’s innate right to self-expression. By replacing your IP with one from our global server park, our multi-platform apps not only render you anonymous, private and secure online, but also enable you to surf the web from a digitally free location of your choice.
Furthermore, what you do online will only be your business, as we will keep no logs of your activity. That is why we are located in the country of no data retention laws, Romania.
All in all, rest assured that the more censored the digital environment is becoming, the more creative we will be in our purpose, looking for new methods to free the Internet.