Global Internet Freedom Declines in Shadow of Pandemic

COVID-19 Impacts – Internet Freedom

Report: Global Internet Freedom Declines in Shadow of Pandemic
Press release   Freedom House
October 14, 2020
Freedom on the Net 2020 assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide. The report focuses on developments that occurred between June 2019 and May 2020. Detailed country reports, data on 21 internet freedom indicators, and policy recommendations can be found at

Governments around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to expand online surveillance and data collection, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control, according to Freedom on the Net 2020, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom, released today by Freedom House.

The rapid and unchecked rollout of artificial intelligence (AI) and biometric surveillance to address the public health crisis has created new risks for human rights. Smartphone apps for contact tracing or quarantine compliance have been introduced in 54 of the 65 countries assessed in this report. Few countries possess effective mechanisms for protecting personal data against abusive practices by the state or the private sector.

“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the internet is becoming less and less free,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression.”

Key Global Findings:
:: Internet freedom declined for the 10th consecutive year. Of the 65 countries covered by Freedom on the Net, 26 worsened and 22 registered gains. Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, India, Ecuador, and Nigeria suffered the largest declines during the coverage period.

:: Internet freedom worsened in the United States for the fourth consecutive year. Amid historic protests against racial injustice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, growing surveillance by federal and local law enforcement has threatened constitutional freedoms, and several people faced spurious criminal charges for online activity related to the demonstrations. Executive orders on social media regulation, issued during and after the coverage period, imperiled the United States’ long-standing role as a global leader on internet freedom. Moreover, the country’s online sphere was flooded with politicized disinformation, inflammatory content, and dangerous misinformation, notably propagated by President Donald Trump himself.

:: Governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on free expression and access to information. Authorities censored independent reporting on the virus in 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries. In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a justification to impose vague or overly broad restrictions on speech. Residents of at least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns, with governments denying certain population groups access to life-saving information in a cruel form of collective punishment.

:: The public health crisis is laying a foundation for the future surveillance state. In at least 30 countries, governments are invoking the pandemic to engage in mass surveillance in direct partnership with telecommunications providers and other companies. Smartphone apps for contact tracing or quarantine compliance have been introduced in at least 54 countries, with few or no protections against abuse. Authorities are rolling out facial recognition technology and automated decision-making with minimal safeguards to protect privacy or prevent police abuse.

:: “Cyber sovereignty” is on the rise. Russian authorities passed legislation to isolate the country from the global internet during national emergencies, and Iran’s government severed international connections in order to hide a violent police response to mass protests. Legislators in Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey passed or considered regulations requiring companies to keep user data from leaving the country, effectively granting law enforcement agencies easier access to sensitive information. More recently, the governments of the United States and India ordered bans on popular Chinese-owned apps; while these actions came in response to genuine security and human rights concerns, they were arbitrary and disproportionate, and served to legitimize calls by Chinese officials for each state to oversee its own “national internet.”


Promote and Build: A Strategic Approach to Digital Authoritarianism
CSIS October 15, 2020 | Erol Yayboke, Samuel Brannen
The Issue
Digital authoritarianism presents overlapping and expanding challenges within autocracies and democracies. The ever evolving tools and techniques of digital authoritarianism transcend boundaries and have over the past decade advanced the interests of authoritarian states while subverting human rights, democratic principles, and more. A new strategic approach is needed to address this broad challenge set. It should be grounded in fundamental principles and framed around promoting resilience while building affirmative alternatives, then executed across the U.S. government and multilateral system.

…To address the question of why digital authoritarianism continues to rise despite ongoing counterefforts and a shared, bipartisan, allied, and multilateral understanding of the problem, CSIS twice convened a bipartisan group of experts and leading voices from the public and private sectors in late spring and early summer 2020. The first discussion focused on current trends in digital authoritarianism and the second on emerging and future trends. The objective of those discussions, accompanying desk research, and analysis has been to provide a set of actionable, politically feasible, and readily achievable recommendations to stem the tide of digital authoritarianism; these are presented at the end of this policy brief.

… Today, digital authoritarianism presents four overlapping challenges:
[1] It is expanding within existing authoritarian-led states such as China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and the Internet of things have increased the ability of authoritarian regimes to surveil and control individual citizens.

[2] Authoritarian regimes are expanding the reach of their digital tools abroad, overtly and covertly increasing surveillance of their own citizens and citizens of other countries. They are also actively using these tools to undermine perceived state and non-state adversaries.

[3] Digital authoritarians are exporting their tools to like-minded regimes both as a means to strengthen ties to these regimes and for commercial benefit. Likewise, tools of control are being commercially exported from democratic countries to partly free or authoritarian countries.

[4] The tools, techniques, and strategies of digital authoritarianism are being adopted within democratic countries by political parties, interest groups, and private companies at the expense of public trust, personal privacy, and other civil liberties.

The focus of this policy brief is on the deployment of these tools by leaders with authoritarian tendencies across the overlapping four areas of the geopolitical challenge set. However, it is important to note that violent extremist groups; sex, child, drug, and arms traffickers; and other non-state actors—including transnational criminal networks with ties to authoritarian regimes—all use similar tools to exploit the Internet for their gain at the expense of others. While each of these tools can be countered to some degree with a series of tactical responses, their continued expansion and evolution, along with the addition of new technologies, makes it an unwinnable offense–defense race. These authoritarian tools should be viewed as enabling an overall vision and strategy that must be countered with a coherent, affirmative, and strategic-level alternative vision…