Report Finds Repressive Governments Are at War With Free Speech on the Internet

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on October 18, 2022
The 2022 edition of Freedom on the Net finds that governments restricted free speech on the internet in 28  countries, but 26 countries enhanced freedom of expression online.

WASHINGTON— Free speech on the internet declined for a 12th consecutive year as more governments erected digital barriers designed to censor dissent and monitor users,  according to a report released today by Freedom House. The study finds that more than  three-quarters of the world’s internet users now live in countries where authorities  punish people for exercising their right to free expression online. The sharpest drop in  internet freedom took place in Russia, as the Kremlin intensified its efforts to stifle  domestic opposition and muzzle independent media in the wake of its illegal and  unprovoked invasion of Ukraine

The new report, Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet, finds that the internet is more fragmented than ever, with a record number  of governments imposing restrictions on what billions of people can access and share  online—whether by blocking foreign websites, hoarding personal data, or increasing  control over their countries’ technical infrastructure. The moves by repressive leaders,  both within their borders and on the international stage, seek to divide the open internet  into a patchwork of repressive enclaves where they can advance their narrow interests  and cement their hold on power. 

“Authoritarian regimes are building digital walls that hamper the free exchange of  information and make it easier to silence dissent, promote dangerous disinformation,  and access personal data,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.  “As more aspects of our lives move online, strengthening internet freedom takes on  greater importance for the protection of freedom in general. Digital repression is driving  a broader democratic decline around the world, and countering it is vital to the global  struggle against authoritarian rule.” 

Despite an overall global decline, the report documented some significant  improvements in internet freedom, made possible by the tireless work of civil society  activists, media groups, and human rights defenders. A record 26 countries registered  net gains in internet freedom for the year. In response to authoritarian governments  making inroads at international institutions, a cohort of democracies have come  together to shape global cyber standards and advance a positive vision for the internet.  However, the report also finds that many democracies have yet to significantly improve  respect for online rights at home, often adopting flawed domestic policies that risk  undermining the values they seek to defend abroad.

Report findings: 

Global internet freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year. The sharpest  downgrades on the report’s 100-point scale were documented in Russia (−7), Myanmar  (−5), Sudan (−4), and Libya (−4). Following the Russian military’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin dramatically intensified its ongoing efforts to suppress domestic  dissent and accelerated the closure or exile of the country’s remaining independent  media outlets. In at least 53 countries, users faced legal repercussions for expressing  themselves online, often leading to draconian prison terms. 

Governments are breaking apart the global internet to create more  controllable online spaces. A record number of national governments blocked  websites with nonviolent political, social, or religious content, undermining the rights to  free expression and access to information. A majority of these blocks targeted  information sources that were located outside of the country. New national laws posed  an additional threat to the free flow of information by centralizing technical  infrastructure and applying flawed regulations to social media platforms and the  management of user data. 

Users in China have the least internet freedom for the eighth consecutive  year. Censorship intensified during the 2022 Beijing Olympics and after tennis star  Peng Shuai accused a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official of sexual  assault. The government continued to tighten its control over the country’s booming  technology sector, including through new rules that require platforms to use their  algorithmic systems to promote CCP ideology. 

A record 26 countries experienced internet freedom improvements. Two of  the larger improvements occurred in The Gambia (+3) and Zimbabwe (+3). Despite the  overall global decline, civil society organizations in many countries have led  collaborative efforts to improve legislation, develop media resilience, and ensure  accountability among technology companies. Successful collective actions against  internet shutdowns offered a model for further progress on other problems like  commercial spyware. 

Internet freedom in the United States improved marginally for the first  time in six years. There were fewer reported cases of targeted surveillance and online  harassment during protests compared with the previous year, and the country now  ranks ninth globally, tied with Australia and France. The United States still lacks a comprehensive federal privacy law, and policymakers made little progress on the passage of other legislation related to internet freedom. Ahead if the November 2022 midterm elections, the online environment was riddled with political disinformation,  conspiracy theories, and harassment aimed at election workers and officials.

Human rights hang in the balance amid a competition to control the web. Authoritarian states are vying to propagate their model of digital control around  the world. In response, a coalition of democratic governments has increased the  promotion of online human rights at multilateral forums, outlining their vision for a free  and open internet. However, their progress remains hampered by problematic internet  freedom practices in their own countries.

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 89 percent of the world’s  internet users. This report, the 12th in its series, covered developments between June  2021 and May 2022. More than 80 analysts and advisers contributed to this year’s  edition, using a standard methodology to determine each country’s internet freedom  score on a 100-point scale, with 21 separate indicators pertaining to obstacles to access,  limits on content, and violations of user rights.

The report identifies a number of steps that policymakers and companies can take to  foster internet freedom. These include meaningfully engaging with civil society groups  that are involved in the fight against digital repression and internet fragmentation by  providing them with funding, technical expertise, strategic litigation assistance, capacity  building, and other support to advance their work. Policymakers, according to the  report, should also work together to pass robust privacy laws and develop new  regulations to enforce platform transparency, which would shed light on the use of  algorithms and recommendation systems and how company operations affect human  rights. View the report’s complete recommendations for governments and technology  companies here.

View the report’s complete recommendations for governments and technology  companies here.

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Peter Page is an Editor-at-Large at Grit Daily. He is available to record live, old-school style interviews via Zoom, and run them at Grit Daily and Apple News, or BlockTelegraph for a fee.Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked as a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.

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