Coronavirus Pandemic Fuels Global Decline in Internet Freedom

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced lockdowns and limited access to workspaces, schools and public venues, internet access is more important than ever before. But according to a recent report from Freedom House, not all access is equal around the world, and it’s trending downward.

Globally, internet freedom saw its 10th consecutive year of decline, according to the annual report, which evaluated internet freedom in 65 countries. While 23 countries registered net gains in internet freedom, 26 countries saw worse scores than last year.

“The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom,” according to the authors of the report. “For the 10th consecutive year, users have experienced an overall deterioration in their rights, and the phenomenon is contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide.”

Iceland maintained the highest score in internet freedom, while the United States ranked seventh, Estonia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and France also ranked higher than the U.S. China ranked last in the Freedom House analysis for the sixth consecutive year. The report’s authors noted that new content controls and arrests were reported throughout the study period, including crackdowns in Hong Kong over free speech and protests. Iran, Syria, Vietnam and Cuba filled out the five countries that scored the lowest in internet freedom.

The study, which accounted for 87% of internet users throughout the world, took place between June 2019 and May 2020. Each country’s internet freedom score was determined using 21 indicators ranked on a 100-point scale within the categories of obstacles to access, limits on contents and violations of user rights. The results determined if the country fell into the free, partly free, or not free category.

In 2020, 35% of the world does not have internet freedom, and another 32% is only partly free, according to the report. Of the 3.8 billion people with internet access, 64% live in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for online activity since June 2019.

According to the report, some political leaders have used the COVID-19 pandemic to limit access to information — controlling the spread of information by arresting people for sharing allegedly false news, or in other cases shutting down news sites altogether. Other leaders have used the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for enhanced surveillance measures, utilizing data collection methods, paired with artificial intelligence, that may have otherwise seemed too intrusive. And some leaders have pursued a virtual closing of borders, or “cyber sovereignty,” straining the global dissemination of information.

Among other findings in the Freedom House report:

— Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan saw the largest decline in the past year, falling by five points. In Myanmar, the government-ordered internet blackout contributed to this decrease, which has left 1.4 million people largely without access since June 2019. Kyrgyzstan faced a similar government-imposed blackout in 2019, as well as investigative journalists being “roughed up” and facing defamation lawsuits after exposing a “corruption ring.”

— Sudan saw a five-point improvement in internet freedom since last year due to its interim constitution, following a transition in government, containing language pertaining to freedom of expression and access to the internet. However, the country is not free of concern, experiencing a 40-day shutdown in June 2019.

— The U.S. lost one point in internet freedom in the past year, marking four consecutive years of decline. The loss is attributed to growing surveillance of social media by local and federal law enforcement, with some individuals receiving criminal charges for their online actions.

— The report highlighted key internet controls related to content restrictions on political, social, or religious bases, and found that all but nine countries had experienced such control. The U.S. was not one of those nine countries.

Freedom House is a Washington-based nongovernmental organization that advocates for human rights. It began producing its Freedom on the Net report in 2009 when it examined internet freedom in 15 countries. In 2014 the report expanded its examination to 65 nations and this year’s report covers 87% of the world’s internet users. The countries are selected to represent a diversity of regions and governments.

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