Freedom House reports that free speech and privacy on the internet declined globally for the ninth consecutive year. The bipartisan watchdog and think tank reports in their Freedom on the Net 2019 report that election interference and government surveillance of social media are undermining internet freedoms.
- How can government policymakers balance surveillance for crimes versus monitoring activists and protesters?
- Social media is at the center of internet freedom. What actions should Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms take to protect internet freedom globally?
- Will the internet in the U.S. continue to be a neutral playing field for communication and transfer of information? What policies can preserve internet freedom in the U.S.? What is the responsibility of internet providers?
- According to Freedom House, “The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”
- Since last year, some 33 countries assessed in the report had an overall decline in their internet freedom score, a measure that factors in a country’s obstacles to internet access, content limits, and user rights violations – Only 16 countries registered improvements in their scores in the past year.
- “Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz. “Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”
Election interference and government surveillance continue to dominate the news cycle, and both are spreading on social media platforms. Examples include Facebook’s ad policy that allows politicians to spread lies or Amazon’s growing relationships with police departments that use its Ring smart doorbells and associated social media products to surveil communities.
The report assessed 65 countries over the past year and in a record 47 countries, law enforcement arrested people for posting political, social, or religious speech online; 40 countries featured advanced social media surveillance programs; and in 38 countries, political leaders employed individuals to shape online opinions, also a record high.
“In addition to facilitating the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation during election periods, social media platforms have enabled the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations,” the report reads. “The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”
These findings follow actions three years ago by Russian actors using social media to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Since then, Facebook and other social media companies have promised to stop election manipulation and increase transparency around government data requests. The Freedom on the Net report questions the effectiveness of these companies’ efforts.
The internet in the U.S. is relatively free but was affected by the spread of disinformation in the 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Other impacts came from law enforcement, and immigration agencies increased surveillance of social media using tools such as those from Palantir. The U.S.’s score declined from 78 last year to 77 this year, on a scale of 0 (not free) to 100 (free).