The latest edition of the independent ‘Freedom on the Net’ report has been published by the Freedom House organisation and its headlines make for pretty grim reading for internet users.
According to the latest edition of the report, Online freedom is in decline, governments are spreading false information and directly influencing elections, and a record number of governments have restricted internet access.
Freedom House is a US-based not-for-profit organisation which assesses freedom and democracy around the globe and publishes an annual report, which measures online freedom in 65 different countries around the world, whose populations together make up 87% of the internet population.
The report assesses the level of online freedom enjoyed by each of them as well as the trends that are impacting online freedom, both positively and negatively, globally. Sadly, in recent years the trend has been overwhelmingly negative and 2017 is no exception.
Online freedom in decline
The report found that online freedom had got worse in almost half of the 65 countries analysed. It will no surprise that the worst abuser of online freedom is once again China. It is the third successive year the Communist state has topped the rankings and as regular readers will know, the situation there has declined considerably over the past twelve months, not least thanks to their efforts to ban VPNs.
They are closely followed by Ethiopia, Syria, and Iran. In Ethiopia, mobile networks were shut down by the ruling party for more than two months after anti-Government protests led to a state of emergency being declared. A total of 21 countries had their internet freedom classified as ‘Not Free’.
In contrast, there were just 16 countries classified as ‘Free’, and their total population makes up less than a quarter of global internet users. Estonia came top of the list closely followed by Iceland, with Canada a little further behind in third.
Manipulating online content to undermine democracy
Even more eye-opening than the general decline in online freedoms which have been reported is some of the specific trends that the new Freedom on the Net report has identified.
The manipulation of online content and the spreading of disinformation (often referred to as fake news) has become increasingly commonplace. Freedom House claims that content manipulation has played an important role in elections in no fewer than 18 countries in 2017 alone.
They also recorded the spreading of disinformation being carried out by 30 of the countries the report looked at, which is an increase on 23 recorded the previous year. Freedom House argues that this disinformation is damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.
“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” explained the President of Freedom House, Michael J. Abramowitz. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”
The Director of the Freedom on the Net project, Sanja Kelly, went even further saying “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda. Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship… because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”
Mobile connectivity under attack
A particular focus for state censors in 2017 has been mobile networks. As well as the shutdown in Ethiopia, which we mentioned above, areas of Turkey, Belarus, and Tibet have also been hit by mobile network blackouts. According to Freedom House, these blocks are almost always put in place for political or security purposes.
Ahead of elections, there were also mobile network shutdowns in the Gambia and Zambia. And in Bahrain, news websites are banned from live-streaming video altogether. In total, half of all internet shutdowns in 2017 were targeted on mobile networks.
There were also reports of people facing government reprisals for things they posted online in more than 30 countries. This practice used to be most prominent in China and Russia, but Freedom House believes that both countries are now teaching other non-democratic states how to control the internet and its citizens.
VPN use increasingly essential
Put together and the Freedom on the Net 2017 report does not make happy reading for internet users around the world or those who advocate online freedom. But in most cases, it is still largely in the hands of individuals to protect themselves and get around state censorship and surveillance of the internet.
By signing up with a reputable VPN such as IPVanish and ExpressVPN, users are able to encrypt all of their online activity and render themselves semi-anonymous online. They can also spoof their IP Address to make it appear as if they are located in another country too and so get around censorship.
The USA and UK are popular locations for this, but according to Freedom House, the best countries to connect to at the moment are Estonia and Iceland!