The COVID-19 pandemic has to lead to an acceleration in the dramatic decline of global internet freedom, according to the Freedom House Freedom on the Net 2020 report
Research and analysis of 65 countries found that the pandemic is fuelling digital repression on a global basis. For the 10th consecutive year, internet users have experienced a deterioration in their digital rights which is a part of the broader international democratic crisis.
Major issues that emerged as a result of the pandemic include political leaders using it as an excuse to block access to information. Instances of independent news sites and arrests on spurious charges of spreading fake news were reported. Freedom House noted that actually, it was often state officials and their supporters who spread fake and misleading information intending to drown out accurate content and distracting the public from ineffective policy responses.
Some countries used the crisis as an excuse to expand surveillance powers and deploy new technologies that were once considered too intrusive. Concerns were raised of the gathering of intimate data, increased use of AI and biometric surveillance, and big data tools that undermine individuals fundamental rights.
Overall, transparency, independent oversight and accountability was missing from many national strategies
Freedom House said that the best and most effective way to combat increasing online authoritarianism is through encouraging civil society.
“While the scale of the international discussion—and of the leading platforms themselves—makes it difficult to incorporate input from all members of the public, global civil society organisations can provide the expertise and independent oversight required to tackle some of the problems surrounding the impact of technology on human rights.”
The organisation noted that the internet has tremendous value because even in “high oppressive” spaces, it can provide “immeasurable possibilities for free expression, community engagement, and economic development”.
From the countries surveyed, 26 noted a decline, and 22 increased in their freedom level. The worst performers with Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan followed by India, Ecuador, and Nigeria. Iceland came out on top, while China was found to have the worst conditions globally
Last year’s report found that governments were increasingly employing individuals to monitor social media, spread propaganda and control the narrative
“Repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control,” it found
Albania was not among those countries surveyed for the internet freedom report. Freedom House does, however, consider it a “hybrid-regime” between partly free and authoritarian. Earlier this year, it found that the countries democracy was in decline and scored badly in judicial framework and independence, corruption, democratic governance and media freedom.