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Rising cyber sovereignty threatens global Internet freedom

Many governments are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to curtail people’s virtual rights

ver since the pandemic struck earlier in the year, connectivity has changed from a convenience to utmost necessity. With most of the human activities shifting to online platforms, most importantly education and work, it is also presenting us with some distinct challenges. Although this shift has provides us with a unique possibility of continuing our lives without disruption, some governments and other non-state actors are using this to pursue their own agendas.

Using COVID-19 as an excuse many countries started conducting increasingly sweeping surveillance of their populations, with contact tracing or quarantine compliance apps. While global internet freedom was already in a decline for the 10th year in a row, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend. A report by the think tank Freedom House revealed some startling statistics.

The report assessed 65 countries, which account for 87% of the world’s internet users — covering the time period between June 2019 to May 2020. More than 70 analysts gave the countries an internet freedom score on a 100-point scale, based on 21 indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

Last year, I wrote about how the internet has started to take different paths from its original mandate of being an unbiased free-for-all online resource. Four competing ideologies described in the article pointed to how our virtual world might be shaping up. Not sure how or when these ideologies might play out, but the events this year have given credence to the idea of ‘Splinternet’.

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Figure 1

China has vehemently propagated the idea of a “national internet” for many years, where every nation is responsible for its own virtual space. However, all of this comes at a steep price that the users have to pay with their online freedom. Let’s review some of the findings of the report.

Largest Score Declines & Gains

Looking at the one-year declines, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan both dropped 5 points while India, Ecuador & Nigeria shed 4 points each. Myanmar enforced a government-ordered internet blackout, which has left some 1.4 million people without any access since June 2019. Kyrgyzstan disrupted connectivity to quell the political opposition (Figure 2).

India, the world’s largest democracy remains the world leader in internet shutdowns — not only did the government disrupt connectivity in major cities to fend off demonstrations against it, but also ordered a statewide internet shutdown in the Kashmir region to subdue the separatist movement there. Nigeria & Ecuador also enacted similar measures which amounted to the government’s tougher controls on online media in these jurisdictions.

Talking about improving scores, Sudan was the biggest gainer with 5 points, owing to its transitional government which enforced an interim constitution containing language that protects freedom of expression and access to the internet.

Ukraine also gained 5 points owing to the removal of telecommunications licensing requirements that have historically been associated with corruption & abandoning the previous practices of administratively blocking websites. Zimbabwe posted a 4 point increase as it abstained from connectivity restrictions that the government had imposed during a violent crackdown on protests in January 2019.

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Figure 2

Pandemic Effect

  • 20 countries cited pandemic as the reason to enforce new restrictions on freedom of speech and arrest online critics.
  • 28 governments blocked websites, users, or platforms to censor information in order to suppress critical reporting, unfavorable health statistics, or other content related to the coronavirus.
  • And in at least 45 countries, people were arrested for their online posts about COVID-19.

Non-Pandemic Findings

  • Internet freedom declined for the fourth year in a row for the U.S, as the country’s position as a leader in internet freedom comes under threat. Federal and local law enforcement agencies adopted various surveillance tools to quell protests against racial injustice. Many people faced criminal charges for their online activity related to these demonstrations.
  • U.S, India & Pakistan all banned the Chinese social media app Tik Tok — all for different reasons though. The U.S cited the data privacy of its citizens, while India retaliated after its border skirmishes with China and Pakistan citing immoral content on the platform. Splinternet is on its way.
  • China was found to be the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth year running. Nothing new there and not a surprise at all. China's great firewall is the most fortified digital border in the World. New content controls and user arrests were reported throughout the time period. For years, the country has been active in banning foreign internet companies.
  • Iceland is the biggest protector of internet freedom in the World — offering high rates of access, few restrictions on content, and strong safeguards for human rights online.
  • Other curbs included Russia’s new law that allows the country to be cut off from the global internet in case of a national emergency. While Iran cut off international connectivity to conceal a violent police crackdown amid mass protests.
  • Courts in Brazil, Estonia, Germany, and South Africa moved to limit state surveillance powers — becoming powerful defenders of internet freedom.
  • Lawmakers in Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey passed or considered new regulations to keep the online user data within their borders.
  • At least in 13 states, the internet was fully shut down at some point over the past year, with India leading the pack. In the bigger picture, this year the report observed intentional disruptions to connectivity in a record 22 out of 65 countries.

The authors of the report outlined a list of recommendations for the private sector, lawmakers, and civil society which included seamless connectivity, robust data privacy laws, and protecting encryption. This has gained a lot of importance ever since our lives have become increasingly digital in the wake of the pandemic.

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