According to the founding fathers, the internet was poised to be a free medium that embraced the spread of information and knowledge. The internet today, however, is riddled with misinformation and political propaganda – making it harder to discern fact from fiction. Governments are increasingly using the “Fake News” rhetoric to monitor the internet, thus cracking down on online freedom and thereby, democracy. A recent report has divulged some shocking statistics – the global internet freedom has declined for the eighth consecutive year.
The report, titled “Freedom on the Net”, is the work of the human rights organization Freedom House, who first published it back in 2011. It assesses the online freedom of countries by looking at 21 criteria divided into three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. The latest 2018 report has stated that out of the 65 accessed countries, 26 experienced a drop in online freedom – with half of these declined related to political elections. The largest score declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia the Philippines, and Venezuela. What’s even more disconcerting is that the United States fall into this category.
In the United States – internet freedom fell partly due to the implementation of anti-democratic internet laws and partly due to the rise of fake news. The Federal Communications Commission, in December 2017, repealed the net neutrality law that mandated internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon to treat all data equally. In addition, the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act allowed the U.S. government to tap into emails, text, and chat histories of Americans via companies like Google and AT&T. Last but not least, the spread of fake news and hyper-partisan content also harmed internet freedom in the U.S. during 2018.
In fact, the government of many countries has embraced the rhetoric of “Fake News” to monitor and dismiss any information that spoke against the regime. In the U.S. – Donald Trump described legitimate and fact-based news outlets as “Fake News” – as they often reported the inadequacy of his administration. Meanwhile, the real fake news emerged from right-wing outlets and Russian propaganda websites. Now, countries such as the Philippines and Kazakhstan are using “Fake News” to restrict the internet by removing content and stifling the spread of views in the name of fighting misinformation.
The rise in digital authoritarianism globally is partly due to China’s stringent rules regarding its internet. In addition to having the worst record of any country in 2018, Chinese officials are training other countries to follow their lead in restricting online freedom. The report also mentions that 36 out of the 65 assessed countries attended seminars hosted by the Chinese government to aid internet restriction.
Meanwhile, the report also followed up on some positive news. While in Armenia, social media apps and live-streaming services aided a peaceful revolution, the new Ethiopian prime minister has vowed to release bloggers from prison and ease restrictions on online communication. Nonetheless, the introduction of the report delivers the verdict for the state of the internet in 2018, and goes: “The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.”