Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that is dedicated to freedom and democracy, continuously exposing the biggest outrages affecting personal liberties that are enforced by the world’s governments. This reaches the online world as well, as amid its greater publications there is the Freedom on the Net Report (FOTNR), an extensive work that reviews the past year and not only exposes the online regimes of some of the greatest countries in the world but also rates them from a global freedom perspective.
The major conclusion of the last seven reports has been always the same: the decline of the global internet freedom. Unfortunately, that did not change in 2018 either, a year that saw the great rise of fake news, massive security scandals, and examples of the internet being used to disrupt democracies. A total of 65 countries were evaluated, covering 87% of the world’s internet users. And without surprise, China was once again the worst abuser.
Cambridge Analytica and the Importance of Personal Data
In April 2018 the world was rocked by the shameful Cambridge Analytica scandal in which 87 million people had their personal data exposed by Facebook. The case was a tragedy foretold, really, and a true wake-up call for anyone in the world deliberately uploading every piece of personal information onto the internet, specifically onto social media sites that offer only a delusion of safety.
But Freedom House’s report highlights yet another important detail that came out of this scandal, which was a “reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes”. The influence of Russia on the U.S. elections is immediately referred to as the trigger that led researchers to find yet more data breaches impacting millions of voters not only in America, but in Mexico, the Philippines, and Turkey, too.
The Curse of Fake News
Likewise, social media has an important role in just how widespread fake news is now, often with dramatic outcomes. Freedom House argues that these platforms “can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities”. This is just what happened in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar where ethnic and religious minorities were targeted online by false rumors and hateful propaganda.
On the other hand, governments have also used the rise of fake news as a pretext for tighter control on information, labeling themselves as the only trusted source of genuine news. Iran, Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Belarus, China, and Cambodia – as namedropped by the study – have all silenced whoever they deem fit instead of adopting effective measures to counter misinformation.
The Chinese Model
China has the highest score within the FOTNR with 88 out of 100, which is not a good thing by Freedom House’s standards. The model currently followed by the Asian country was meticulously planned and leaves no things to chance, as any content criticizing the government is removed, censorship and online surveillance legislation is approved, and much more.
The country’s infamous Great Firewall is a very important piece of this puzzle, actively blocking hundreds of foreign websites and forcing citizens to have no other option but the Chinese, government-controlled alternatives. This ranges from simple search engines to social networks and even circumvention software like VPNs. And, of course, those who disobey the law can expect heavy monetary fines and even jail sentences.
With the great power and influence of China, it could be a matter of time until its repressive model crosses the border. Vietnam, for instance, is one of the countries that is already taking the first steps towards in troducing its own replica of it and, as indicated in the report, other countries like those in Africa could follow, given the “increased activity by Chinese companies and officials” in the continent.
Of all the countries assessed in the report, 26 of them had further restricted their internet freedom, and almost half of these declines were “related to elections”, according to Freedom House. Iran and Syria came after China as the most online repressed countries with scores of 85 and 83, respectively.
In terms of the differences with last year’s report, Gambia (+12%), Armenia (+5%) and Jordan (+4%) were the biggest positive movers. Egypt and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, did the exact opposite with both decreasing their score by 4%. But, curiously enough, of these five countries only Armenia is considered by Freedom House as being “free”. Despite the fact that the efforts of Gambia and Jordan had not been ignored by the organization, both countries still remain as “partly free”, as does Sri Lanka. Egypt is “not free”, however, and this rating doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Regarding the United States, despite the country’s score of 22 out of 100 being pretty good still earning a “free” label, it also followed an overall decline in internet freedom. This is due to different factors such as the increasing spread of fake news and disinformation on social media, among others; say nothing of the questions surrounding net neutrality. On the other hand, Russia retained its “not free” evaluation. Under Kremlin’s orders the authorities actively block apps and services within its borders. In April 2018, for instance, Telegram was their latest target, this being only one of the factors that contributing to Freedom House’s score of 67 out of 100.
Unfortunately, the report shows very few positive outcomes from 2018. The internet nowadays is being treated as a powerful weapon to shape opinions and disrupt moral values, while more and more people are forced to live with censorship, fake news, and other deceitful practices. For more details, take a look at the full Freedom on the Net Report from 2018 for yourself.
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