From: Alice Taylor
Freedom House: Global Internet Freedom Decreasing in Wake of Global Spyware Scandal

Global internet freedom is continuing to decline for the 11th year in a row, according to the Freedom on the Net 2021 report from Freedom House.

Freedom on the Net is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere. The project assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of the world’s internet users. This report, the 11th in its series, covered developments between June 2020 and May 2021.

One of the critical issues contributing to the decline is how countries pursue new rules for tech companies relating to content, data, and competition. The push to regulate the online tech industry to combat real issues such as online harassment and fake news is being exploited to crackdown on freedom of expression. It’s also being wielded as a weapon to acquire more personal data on citizens.

Freedom of expression is also under pressure as more governments take legal action against users for nonviolent, political, social, or religious speech. This is happening more than ever before, and in the last year, internet access was suspended in 20 countries, with 21 states blocking access to social media. A further 45 countries are accused of obtaining spyware or data extraction technology from private companies.

Another trend identified in the report was how governments remove users’ speech from sites and initiate legal proceedings to suppress critical content. This is done to gain more political control rather than hide harmful content.

But not all hope is lost. The report states that there is still time for democratic governments to pursue “smart, narrowly tailored measures  to protect users’ rights online”.

“Democracies should push for greater transparency and accountability regarding platforms’ content moderation practices. Data privacy laws should focus on protecting users while preventing greater fragmentation of the internet. And competition policy should foster innovation that responds to user demand for greater personalization, security, and interoperability. Regulation should ensure that power does not accumulate in the hands of a few dominant actors, whether in government or the private sector.”

Freedom House said that the internet must remain free and equal, including access to educational, creative, and communicative tools. Governments should create rules that allow users to express themselves freely, share information in a cross-border manner, and hold power to account. If this doesn’t happen, technology will fuel the global downturn in democracy.

The countries with the most significant decline in 2020 were Myanmar followed by Belarus and Uganda. Ecuador registered the most significant improvement, followed by the Gambia. The US fell five places to number 12 while Iceland placed first. 

For the seventh year in a row, China took the last spot. Critical issues in China include a new law that criminalizes any insults towards members of the armed forces, “heroes”, and “martyrs”. Draconian penalties have been created for online dissent. For example, the case of Ren Zhiqiang who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for penning an essay criticizing communist party leader Xi Jinping’s handling of COVID-19.

Members of the public continue to receive punishment for sharing news, discussing religion, or talking with family members abroad.

On the topic of spyware, more than half of the countries surveyed are believed to be using sophisticated software to surveil members of the public, journalists, activists and political rivals.

The Albanian government considered buying software from The Hacking Team, a competitor to NSO Group who have made global headlines over allegations they hacked journalists, politicians, and activists on behalf of global governments.

According to leaked emails via the Wikileaks database, the Albanian government held at least two meetings in Tirana with the company. The correspondence between the Albanian government and The Hacking Team began shortly after Prime Minister Edi Rama came to power in 2013.

Leaked emails show that the company discussed meetings and the demo with a contact called Altin Hoxha. It’s not clear which department he worked for.

Hoxha told them: “This system is really what we are looking to implement.” He noted that they were coming to the end of the budget year but that they hoped they could implement it in 2014 as long as “negotiations about options, functions, usage, prices, guarantees, and training” could be given.

This was for a system called Galileo. The Hacking Company described it as a “remote control system designed to attack, infect, and monitor a huge number of target PDs and smartphones in a stealth way.”

The company was also in contact with a man called Ermal Dautaj, believed to be working for the State Intelligence Services. In one email, Dautaj suggests setting up a meeting with “the Minister or with other people (you know who I am talking about)”.