US internet freedom score declines as the government use Covid-19 to increase censorship online

Many governments around the world have introduced new digital surveillance and data collection tools to combat the coronavirus, but a new report says the technologies are an abuse of power.

Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group, released an internet freedom report that shows a decline in free speech and privacy online across 80 countries since the outbreak began.

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic – and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials.

China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year and although the US ranked ‘free’, its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump.

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Freedom House , a human rights watchdog group, released an internet freedom report that shows a decline in free speech and privacy online across 80 countries since the outbreak began

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said: ‘What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy.’

‘What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy.’

The coronavirus started in China around December and quickly made its way across the globe.

To limit the virus from spreading, many countries were placed in lockdowns and the internet became a go-to for finding information, children to attend school, business to conduct work and people to keep in touch with loved ones.

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic - and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic – and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials

US internet freedom score declines as the government use Covid-19 to increase censorship online 1

China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year

However, Freedom House says these authorities saw the coronavirus as an opportunity to ‘to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive.’

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories.

Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192.

although the US ranked 'free', its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump

although the US ranked ‘free’, its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump

Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House, said: ‘Our survey found that governments’ responses to the pandemic are eroding the pillars of democracy around the world.’

‘The blatant obfuscation of facts by governments is always harmful, but it is especially egregious at a time when so many people’s lives are at stake.

The report found that authorities censored independent reporting of ‘unfavorable’ coronavirus coverage in at lest 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries. 

The survey showed 62 percent of people did not trust what they were hearing about the pandemic from the national government in their country.

In China, along with other countries including Bangladesh and Belarus, governments blocked websites that contradicted official sources.

Censorship was also found in Zimbabwe, which passed a law banning information that did not line up with what authorities were saying and violators can face up to 20 years in prison. 

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen's devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House. At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen’s devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House. At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology

However, at least 13 countries carried out a complete shutdown of the internet – this included areas of Ethiopia and Myanmar. 

Freedom house notes that governments used the outbreak as a way that would justify their use of special powers beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect public health.

As one respondent said of Turkey, ‘Coronavirus was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do but had not been able to.’

Contact tracing apps are being used around the world, which claim to limit the spread of the virus by tracking people via their smartphones.

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen’s devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House.

At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology and in China, authorities are allowed to access an individual’s personal data and health records.

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories. Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories. Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192

Much of the world has experienced at least one quarantine session, but some governments applied the protocol in a discriminatory manner.

The report found Muslims in India and Sri Lanka were accused of being ‘superspreaders,’ while in Serbia, one respondent said, ‘migrants were portrayed as possible carriers of the virus.’

And in Kuwait, authorities imposed tighter restrictions on noncitizen neighborhoods. 

The US remains on the ‘free internet’ list, but its score declined due to increased surveillance used by law enforcement against protest movements, executive orders on social media regulations, disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump and moves to ban Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat.

The app bans were described as ‘an arbitrary and disproportionate response to the genuine risks’ from those services. 

Amy Slipowitz, research manager at Freedom House and a coauthor of the report, said: ‘The persistence of public protests, under every type of regime, shows that citizens remain willing to challenge authorities, even as governments use the crisis to try to increase their own powers.’

‘The erosion of political rights and civil liberties began long before the pandemic, but people in every region of the world are clearly committed to reclaiming their freedom.’

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