Internet freedom has declined for a seventh consecutive year, with manipulation of democratic processes through social media, restrictions on VPNs, attacks on netizens and journalists, mobile connectivity shutdowns, and other worrying trends, according to the 2017 Freedom on the Internet report.
Freedom House released the annual report with contributions from the Internet Society (ISOC) on Tuesday. The report examines internet freedoms in 65 countries representing 87 percent of all internet users, and shows internet freedoms declining in 32 of the countries since June 2016, with the most notable declines observed in Ukraine, Egypt, and Turkey.
Thirty countries have organized clandestine propaganda arms of online “opinion shapers,” according to the report, and disinformation projects impacted elections in at least 17 countries in the past year. The report also finds that internet freedoms are often pressured by elections, as also indicated by its Internet Freedom Election Monitor project, which assesses countries risk to internet freedom.
Beyond the increasing sophistication behind government attempts to control dialogue on the internet, restricting access by shutting down entire networks or blocking specific platforms and services has also increased, as 19 tracked countries experienced at least one network shutdown.
“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”
Internet access was also limited in at least 14 countries in attempts to reduce content manipulation. In one example, Ukraine blocked services based in Russia following a disinformation campaign by Russian agents, blocking both the social network and search engine most commonly used in Ukraine.
Governments in the Philippines and Turkey have reportedly used “astroturfing” (faking grassroots movements) on a large scale to increase the appearance of support for their policies.
“When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, it is important for countries not to overreach,” Kelly said. “The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”
The report also details attacks on internet privacy and press freedoms, including the implementation of laws that provide authorities with “back doors” to break encryption in at least six countries: China, Russia, Hungary, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom.
China was the worst internet freedom abuser for the third consecutive year, according to the report, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.