Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism – Freedom House

Internet Freedom :: “Digital Authoritarianism
Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism
Freedom House
October 2018 :: 32 pages
Governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data and using claims of “fake news” to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy.
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Tracking the Global Decline
Freedom on the Net is a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users. It tracks improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year. The countries included in the study are selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types. In-depth reports on each country can be found at

More than 70 analysts contributed to this year’s edition using a 21-question research methodology that addresses internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues. In addition to ranking countries by their internet freedom score, the project offers a unique opportunity to identify global trends related to the impact of information and communication technologies on democracy. This report, the eighth in its series, focuses on developments that occurred between June 2017 and May 2018.

Of the 65 countries assessed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017, compared with 19 that registered net improvements. The biggest score declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

Even as the #MeToo movement successfully exposed rampant sexual assault and harassment in some parts of the world, two women in Egypt were arrested in separate incidents for uploading video confessionals on Facebook to decry such abuses in that country. Both were accused of spreading false information to harm public security; one, a visiting Lebanese tourist, was sentenced to eight years in prison. Egyptian authorities undertook a broader crackdown on dissent by blocking some 500 websites, including those of prominent human rights organizations and independent media outlets. In Sri Lanka, authorities shut down social media platforms for two days during communal riots that broke out in March and led to at least two deaths. Rumors and disinformation had spread on digital platforms, sparking vigilante violence that predominantly targeted the Muslim minority.

In almost half of the countries where internet freedom declined, the reductions were related to elections. Twelve countries suffered from a rise in disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, or arrests of government critics in the lead-up to elections. As Venezuela held a presidential election in May to cement the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro, the government passed a vaguely written law that imposed severe prison sentences for inciting “hatred” online. Implementation of the “Fatherland Card”—an electronic identification system used to channel social aid—stirred suspicions that data collected through the device could be exploited to monitor and pressure voters. Ahead of general elections in July 2018, Cambodia experienced a surge in arrests and prison sentences for online speech, as the government sought to broaden the arsenal of offenses used to silence dissent, including a new lèse-majesté law that bans insults to the monarchy.

Score declines in the Philippines and Kenya led to status downgrades. The Philippines slipped from Free to Partly Free as content manipulation and cyberattacks threatened to distort online information. Harassment of dissenting voices escalated, with authorities attempting to close down a local news website known for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. The media organization Vera Files, one of several outlets to suffer cyberattacks during the year, was hit with a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack shortly after it published a sensitive story about Duterte and his daughter’s declaration of assets. In Kenya, which also moved from Free to Partly Free, online manipulation and disinformation targeted voters during the August 2017 elections, while a Cybercrime Law passed in May 2018 increased the maximum penalty for publishing “false” or “fictitious” information to 10 years in prison if the action results in “panic” or is “likely to discredit the reputation of a person,” despite the fact that criminal defamation was ruled unconstitutional in 2017. An association of bloggers appealed provisions of the law, which were suspended for further review. These negative developments occurred against the backdrop of growing surveillance concerns and ongoing arrests of bloggers and ordinary social media users for criticizing government officials or posting alleged hate speech.

Internet freedom declined in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission repealed rules that guaranteed net neutrality, the principle that service providers should not prioritize internet traffic based on its type, source, or destination. The move sparked efforts by civil society groups and state-level authorities to restore the protections on a local basis. In a blow to civil rights and privacy advocates, Congress reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act, including the controversial Section 702, thereby missing an opportunity to reform surveillance powers that allow the government to conduct broad sweeps in search of non-US targets and routinely collect the personal communications of Americans in the process. Despite an online environment that remains vibrant, diverse, and free, disinformation and hyperpartisan content continued to be of pressing concern in the United States, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

Of the 19 countries with overall score improvements, two—Armenia and the Gambia—earned upgrades in their internet freedom status. Armenia rose from Partly Free to Free after citizens successfully used social media platforms, communication apps, and live-streaming services to bring about political change in the country’s Velvet Revolution in April. The Gambia jumped from Not Free to Partly Free, as restrictions have eased and users have posted content more freely since longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh was forced from office in early 2017. However, many draconian laws enacted under the former regime are still in place. While Ethiopia remained highly repressive, a new prime minister appointed in April 2018 immediately moved to reduce tight internet restrictions and promised broader reforms. Prominent bloggers were released from prison, and citizens felt more free to speak out on social media and participate in their country’s potential transition from authoritarian rule.


Press Release
The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism: Fake news, data collection and the challenge to democracy
November 1, 2018
Governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data and using claims of “fake news” to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy, according to Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of online freedom, released today by Freedom House.

Online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly poisoned the digital sphere, while the
unbridled collection of personal data is breaking down traditional notions of privacy. At the same time, China has become more brazen and adept at controlling the internet at home and exporting its techniques to other countries.

These trends led global internet freedom to decline for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.

“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “This pattern poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”

“The U.S. government and major U.S. tech companies need to take a more proactive role in preventing online manipulation and protecting users’ data,” Abramowitz said. “The current weaknesses in the system have played into the hands of less democratic governments looking to increase their control of the internet.”…

“This year has proved that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships,” said Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy…