Freedom House Report Reveals Troubling Trend in Internet Freedoms

On Nov. 14, 2017, Freedom House released their seventh annual Freedom on the Net report, an in-depth country-by-country analysis of digital freedom starting in 2011.

This year’s report focused on how government manipulation of social media around the world negatively impacts democracy.

That same day, Freedom House and Google hosted a special launch event held in Google’s Washington, D.C. offices for the Freedom of the Net Report. People like Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, and Ross Andersen, a senior editor at The Atlantic, spoke  focusing on social media manipulation by governments.

One panelist was Sally Wentworth, vice president of Global Policy and Development at the Internet Society–a non-profit organization that promotes the usage of the internet for the benefit of people around the world. Wentworth said that governments are getting savvy in how they block and limit technology. She said that that authoritarian governments are beginning to learn from each other in how to restrict online speech, contributing to the loss of internet freedom in many countries this year.  

The 2017 report shows the diversity of tactics used by governments to crackdown on speech online.

Image: Freedom House

Image: Freedom House

According to the report, 30 countries have used some form of online opinion shaper to spread government views and counter dissent against the government.

Russia was noted for employing online trolls as part of a Kremlin policy to disrupt conversation and post pro-Russian views online. The Russian troll farm is a notorious phenomenon that has been reported on by Vanity Fair and other publications.

While the story of Russian trolls and bots had been popularized by the 2016 presidential election, a 2015 New York Times article shows that this has been occurring for many years.

Along with online trolls, the report discussed the innovative ways governments across the globe are trying to restrict speech.

China, for example, has begun to set up a social credit system to control Chinese online behavior, tying it to government and financial services in China. This system contributed to another year of low ratings for Chinese internet freedom, with a score of 87 in 2017.

The report also noted key changes in ratings for different countries, such as Venezuela. After many years of being considered partly free, the nation’s rating was downgraded to not free in this year’s report under the reign of President Nicolás Maduro.

Another major change was the decline in internet freedom in the United States. The rise of fake news along with the allegations of Russian hackers and trolls caused a decline of freedom on the American internet, according to the 2017 report.

Despite most news being negative, thirteen countries–like Kazakhstan, Uganda, Iran and Georgia–experienced an increase in internet freedom, even if the rating increase was small.

The reason for the positive change in rankings varied. In Bangladesh, for example, the positive shift represented a change in government policy in which the government refrained from blocking apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook as it previously has.

Despite marginal positive changes, 2017 was a negative year overall for internet freedom due to the innovative ways governments around the world have been restricting internet freedom. Considering that nations are becoming more adept and innovative, the trend for the future does not look positive.

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