The Freedom on the Net 2018 report has been published and it doesn’t make for pretty reading. The annual report which assesses online freedom around the world has concluded that things have got worse for the eighth year in a row, with Communist China once again the worst offender.
But while it is no surprise that the Chinese regimes Great Firewall has seen it ranked as the worst country in the world for online freedoms yet again, perhaps more worrying is China’s growing tendency to export its Orwellian online technology to other like-minded regimes around the world.
Freedom House, who authored the report, describes the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy as “remak[ing] the world in its techno-dystopian image”. They refer to the Chinese model as ‘digital authoritarianism’ and suggest that the internet was increasingly being used as a tool to attack democracy rather than spread it.
The report also condemns the Chinese regimes new cybersecurity law and increased use of surveillance as a tool of fear to control the Chinese people.
The growth in restrictive legislation
China was not the only country to come in for criticism. The report also highlights a number of countries including Egypt and Iran, which have rewritten their own media laws to include online content and social media sites and then used these laws to jail critics of their governments and block access to critical content.
Cambodia is another country that is condemned for their new law which requires all websites to register with the Government and allows people to be jailed for up to two years for spreading what the law loosely defines as ‘fake news’.
Of the 65 countries surveyed for this report, a shockingly high 17 had adopted laws to restrict online media over the past twelve months. Of those 13 were able to jail their citizens if convicted of spreading false content.
Democracies also undermining online freedom
But it is not just countries which are under authoritarian regimes who have come in for criticism. The USA has also seen online freedom decline this year thanks to the FCC of Ajit Pai which has rolled back online privacy and net neutrality laws to the detriment of US citizens.
The US has also renewed its overbearing surveillance laws with little or no debate and highlighted the “disinformation and hyperpartisan content” of ‘fake news’ that has been spread on the Trump administration’s watch.
India and Sri Lanka also come in for criticism for their habit of shutting down the internet either completely or partially in response to outbreaks of disorder. It is reported that over the past year, the Indian government has shut down the internet on no fewer than 121 occasions.
Their reasons for these shutdowns include to prevent public disorder or ethnic violence, in response to provocative viral content, and even to prevent cheating in exams.
A bleak picture
In general terms, the 2018 Freedom on the Net report makes for extremely bleak reading. In total, almost half of those countries surveyed saw a decline in online freedom. Almost half of those could be directly linked to elections taking place.
Of the 65 countries profiled, 18 have increased online surveillance over the past twelve months, while 15 are considering data protection laws which would follow the lead of China and Russia in demanding that data about their citizens is stored in their country to enable them to access it more easily.
They also found that 32 countries, or almost half of those covered in the report, had used bots, online trolls, or paid internet commentators to manipulate online conversations to support their regimes and policies. The era of ‘fake news’ is clearly very much in full flow.
Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, summed up the situation well. “The internet, once seen as a liberating technology, is increasingly being used to disrupt democracies as opposed to destabilizing dictatorships,” he told reporters.
Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy, added that, “Online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly poisoned the digital sphere, while the unbridled collection of personal data is breaking down traditional notions of privacy.”
All of which illustrates why the use of online privacy and security tools like VPNs are growing around the world. As the internet gets a more dangerous place to be, people are taking matters into their own hands and buying the tools they need to protect themselves.
A VPN encrypts everything you do online to keep it safe from state surveillance and also hides your online identity to allow you to speak freely and without fear of repercussions.