The internet today is far from the utopian place that it was in the past, the Freedom on the Net 2019 report by bipartisan watchdog and think tank Freedom House suggests. And it’s hard to disagree.
“Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism, which have spread rapidly around the globe,” the report notes. “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.”
Overall, the report observes that global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year. Social media is singled out as the cause for two of the biggest challenges the internet faces (and poses) today. One is that it makes it possible to interfere in the democratic process. This often takes place using “fraudulent or automated” accounts used to spread fake news. “Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions in 38 of the 65 countries covered in this report,” the study’s authors claim.
Secondly, social media allows governments to “identify and monitor users” on an “immense scale.” This is due to massive amounts of data that can be collected at low cost, along with the use of artificial intelligence algorithms to analyze it. Of the 65 countries assessed in the record, 47 reportedly featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech.
Iceland is considered the world’s best protector of internet freedom, with no civil or criminal cases against users for online expression during the period covered. China has the unenviable position of being named the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth year running. Censorship is rife, with the effect of silencing online activism.
While the United States fares better, internet freedom still declined during the period covered. It’s also worth noting that many of the world’s top social media platforms are located in the U.S., and their “exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect.”
The report contains one major warning: “There is no more time to waste.” The advent of tools like A.I., advanced biometrics, and 5G connectivity present new opportunities for driving humanity forward. But there are still plenty of ways these tools can be used for bad as well as good. “Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression,” the report’s authors note. “The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today.”