Some governments around the globe are introducing digital surveillance and data collection tools that could pose a lasting threat to citizens’ rights, according to a report by research institute Freedom House.
The Freedom on the Net 2020 report, an assessment of 65 countries released Wednesday, accused some governments of using the virus as a pretext to crack down on critical speech, according to a CNN report.
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, which is funded by the US government, said:
The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the internet is becoming less and less free. Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression.
Nowhere has that approach been more apparent than in China, according to Freedom House, which rated the country worst for internet freedom for a sixth year in a row.
Since the coronavirus outbreak emerged in Wuhan last December, China has deployed every tool in its internet control arsenal — from digital surveillance, to automated censorship, and systematic arrests – to stem the spread, not only of Covid-19, but of unofficial information and criticism of the government, researchers found.
But the report found the practices were not unique to China. Authorities censored independent reporting in at least 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries, it stated.
Governments from Bangladesh to Belarus blocked reporting and websites that contradicted official sources, revoking credentials and detaining journalists who challenged their statistics. In Venezuela, the government barred a website with information about Covid-19 created by the opposition, while journalists were detained and forced to delete online content about the virus’s spread in hospitals.
Though misinformation about the coronavirus is a pandemic of its own, Freedom House says that at least 20 countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Azerbaijan imposed excessively broad restrictions on speech, many of them new or expanded laws policing “false” information, according to the report.
Allie Funk, the report’s co-author and a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House, said the impact of the oppression could be long-lived:
People may be less likely to report on certain issues because they don’t want to face criminal penalties or they don’t want to face targeted harassment or violence from pro-government supporters online.