Internet freedom around the world has fallen for the 12th year in a row, according to new research.
The latest edition of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report finds that human rights online deteriorated in 28 countries, with more than two-thirds of the world’s internet users living in countries that restrict free expression online.
China is once again the country with the least internet freedom. Censorship was ramped up during the 2022 Beijing Olympics and tighter control over the technology sector, and new rules were introduced requiring platforms to use their algorithmic systems to promote CCP ideology.
However, it was Russia that saw the sharpest drop in internet freedom, with the Kremlin intensifying its efforts to stifle domestic opposition and muzzle independent media following the invasion of Ukraine.
“To suppress reliable reporting and quell Russians mobilizing against the war, the government restricted access to international social media platforms, blocked more than 5,000 websites, and passed new draconian laws criminalizing what it deems as ‘false’ information,” says Allie Funk, research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, and co-author of Freedom on the Net.
“These moves significantly raise the risks for people speaking out against the invasion online, and accelerated the closure or exile of the country’s remaining independent media outlets. Now more than ever, people in Russia only have access to an internet that mirrors the interests of the Kremlin.”
Other notable falls in internet freedom were seen in Myanmar, Sudan and Libya. And, says the report, a growing number of users only get to see content approved by their government, with authorities in 47 of the 70 countries covered by Freedom on the Net having limited users’ access to information sources located outside of their borders.
However, there were improvements in internet freedom for 26 countries, most notably The Gambia and Zimbabwe.
In the US, internet freedom improved very slightly for the first time in six years, with fewer reported cases of targeted surveillance and online harassment during protests compared with the previous year. The country now ranks ninth globally, tied with Australia and France.
“President Biden’s administration has made the promotion of internet freedom a top priority of its foreign policy. It has launched the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, created a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy within the State Department, and has invested millions of dollars in digital democracy programming,” says Funk.
However, she says, these efforts have not been mirrored by progress in the protection of domestic online human rights, with no comprehensive federal privacy law, and surveillance rules that are in need of reform. Government agencies can simply purchase Americans’ data from data brokers with little oversight or safeguards.
“The online environment is also riddled with false information, conspiracy theories, and online harassment aimed at election workers and officials,” adds Funk.
“The proliferation of election denialism online has seeped into the political system and is undermining public confidence in American democracy.”