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Freedom House: State intervention must protect human rights online

While some democratic governments have made good-faith attempts to regulate the technology industry, state intervention in the digital sphere worldwide has contributed to the 11th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom, according to Freedom on the Net 2021, an annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom released by Freedom House.

Skopje, 21 September 2021 (MIA) — While some democratic governments have made good-faith attempts to regulate the technology industry, state intervention in the digital sphere worldwide has contributed to the 11th consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom, according to Freedom on the Net 2021, an annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom released by Freedom House.

According to the latest report by Freedom House, the first American organization to champion the advancement of freedom globally, the greatest deteriorations were documented in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda, where state forces cracked down amid electoral and constitutional crises.

Freedom House ranks China as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row. Chinese authorities imposed draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting, and mundane daily communications. The covid-19 pandemic remains one of the most heavily censored topics. Officials also cracked down on the country’s tech giants, citing their abuses related to competition and data protection, though the campaign further concentrated power in the hands of the authoritarian state.

But governments around the world have been increasingly asserting their authority over technology platforms, forcing businesses to comply with censorship and surveillance, at great cost to free expression, privacy, and public accountability.

This change in the balance of power between companies and states has come amid a historic crackdown on freedom of expression online. In 56 countries, officials arrested or convicted people for their online speech. Governments suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, most often during times of political turmoil such as protests and elections. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors.

According to Freedom House’s report, internet freedom plummeted by 14 points in Myanmar—the largest annual decline ever recorded on Freedom on the Net’s 100-point scale—after the military refused to accept the results of the November 2020 general elections and launched a deadly coup in February 2021.

Electoral disputes also led to major internet freedom declines in Belarus, where authoritarian incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory in a fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, and Uganda, where authorities shut off the internet and blocked social media platforms during marred general elections in January 2021.

In addition, officials in both Myanmar and Belarus sought to silence independent online media by shutting down news outlets and harassing, assaulting, and torturing online journalists.

According to Freedom House, the United States’ score declined for the fifth consecutive year. “False, misleading, and manipulated information continued to proliferate online, even affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results. The new administration took promising steps to enforce stronger protections for internet users,” the researchers say.

State intervention must protect human rights online and preserve an open internet, the researchers add.

“The emancipatory power of the internet depends on its egalitarian nature. To counter digital authoritarianism, democracies should ensure that regulations enable users to express themselves freely, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account.”

Freedom on the Net 2021 assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of internet users worldwide. The report focused on developments that occurred between June 2020 and May 2021. mr/

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