Freedom on the Net report highlights authoritarian regimes fracturing the internet

Lady using internet on a phone in a tent

The Freedom on the Net Report 2022 has been published today with some grim conclusions.

The report, which is published by the independent Freedom House organisation has found that online freedom around the world has declined for the twelfth consecutive year.

It found that more than three-quarters of the world’s internet users now live in countries where the governing regimes punish people for exercising their right to free expression online.

That is a truly jaw-dropping statistic and really shines a light on the scale of the problems being faced by online rights activists globally.

Where is it worst to go online?

It will come as no surprise to most readers to learn that it is in the People’s Republic of China where users have the least online freedom.

There the Communist regime has near-total control of people’s online activity blocking almost every western website and censoring users in real-time, as well as watching everything the Chinese people do online.

Just a couple of examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the internet in this report include the censorship of search terms around the name Peng Shuai, after the prominent tennis player was disappeared by the regime after publicly accusing a senior party official of sexual assault.

They also flagged new rules that require Chinese-based platforms to use their algorithmic systems to promote CCP ideology over the truth, a problem that has also been spotted in CCP-controlled platforms accessible overseas too, most notably TikTok.

The biggest single-year decline in online freedom was found in another global pariah state Russia, where the Putin regime has attempted to use online controls as a means of limiting criticism and propagandising around their illegal invasion of Ukraine.

The enforced closure of many independent Russian media outlets has also been a prominent factor. Other countries which have seen a significant single-year decline include Myanmar, where there has been a military coup, Sudan, and Libya.

Authoritarian regimes fracturing global internet

Perhaps the most worrying trend recorded in the latest report is the habit of authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia, using technology and regulation to fracture the global internet and create more manageable areas where they can control and monitor people’s online activity.

The report cites a record number of national governments blocking websites with nonviolent political, social, or religious content, a practice which undermines the rights to free expression and access to information.

Crucially, most of this type of online censorship was targeted at information sources that were located outside of the country these regimes control.

In other words, authoritarian regimes are using national laws to block the free flow of information from outside sources.

Other methods observed to achieve this goal include centralising technical infrastructure, applying excessive regulations to social media platforms, and enforcing unrealistic user data requirements that inevitably result in sites being blocked.

As Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House has said, “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.”

“Digital repression is driving a broader democratic decline around the world, and countering it is vital to the global struggle against authoritarian rule”, he rightly added.

Not all bad news

On a more positive note, there were a number of findings that offer a cause for optimism.

The Freedom on the Net report found that a total of 26 countries had seen an improvement in online freedom over the past year. That is a record for the report in a single year.

The biggest improvements were recorded in the African countries of Zimbabwe and the Gambia, while there was even a first improvement in six years for internet users in the United States of America.

In the US, there were fewer reported cases of targeted surveillance and online harassment during protests reported by internet users compared with the previous year, which is a reason to be positive. According to Freedom House, the USA now ranks ninth globally, tied with Australia and France.

Iceland remains at the top of the pile, just ahead of Estonia, with Costa Rica third. Canada is ranked fourth, with Taiwan joint fifth (are you watching China!) alongside the UK. Georgia, Japan, and Germany, all rank ahead of the USA too.

The report also makes a number of policy recommendations that could help to improve online freedom further in the years ahead.

This includes government’s engaging far more meaningfully with civil society groups that are campaigning against digital repression and internet fragmentation, ensuring they have the funding, technical expertise, and other resources they need to do their work.

The report also recommends policymakers seek to pass robust privacy laws and new regulations that enforce platform transparency and would help to shed light on how companies and authoritarian regimes use of algorithms and recommendation systems for ill.

You can read the full Freedom on the Net 2022 report here.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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