The Freedom on the Net 2020 report, an assessment of 65 countries released Wednesday, found that the pandemic accelerated the decline of free speech and internet privacy for the tenth consecutive year and accused some governments of using the virus as a pretext. to repress critical discourse.
“The pandemic is accelerating society’s dependence on digital technologies at a time when the internet is becoming less and less free,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, which is funded by the US government. “Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can easily be reused for political repression.”
These practices are not unique to China, the report details.
Censoring the coronavirus epidemic
According to the report, keen to downplay the unfavorable coverage of Covid-19, authorities have censored independent reports in at least 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries.
Following China’s lead, governments from Bangladesh to Belarus blocked reports and websites that contradicted official sources, revoking credentials and arresting journalists who contested their statistics. In Venezuela, for example, the government blocked a website with information on Covid-19 created by the opposition, while journalists were arrested and forced to delete online content on the spread of the virus in hospitals.
Although disinformation about the coronavirus is a pandemic in itself, Freedom House says at least 20 countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Azerbaijan have imposed excessively broad restrictions on speech, many of them new or expanded laws that check “false” information, according to the relationship. In one of the most draconian cases, Zimbabwe has approved an emergency measure that penalizes “false” information about Covid-19, which could put criminals at risk for up to 20 years in prison.
Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House, co-author of the report, said the long-term impact of these laws will be devastating to free speech, pointing to self-censorship and the climate of fear that they create.
“People may be less likely to report on certain issues because they don’t want to face criminal sanctions or don’t want to face targeted harassment or violence from pro-government supporters online,” Funk said.
At least 13 countries have gone further by imposing internet closures that have kept populations completely in the dark. Long-term connectivity restrictions affecting internet and telephone services in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, severely limit residents’ ability to learn about the virus or obtain life-saving information about its spread.
Surveillance in the name of public health
Monitoring the spread of the coronavirus is key to limiting further infections, a tactic that has been credited for South Korea’s low death toll from Covid-19, for example. But without solid privacy protection, Freedom House warns that some technological responses to the pandemic could pave the way for future surveillance states.
In at least 30 countries, governments have relied on the pandemic to tap into telecommunications data for mass surveillance with little oversight, Freedom House said. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, among other places, such work is being done by or in tandem with national security and military agencies.
While contact tracking plays a vital role in containing the virus, some digital monitoring tools are implemented quickly and with little responsibility for how personal data – such as location, names and contact lists – could be matched with public information to effect dangerous. And this could turn out to be a slippery slope, warns Freedom House.
“History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to remain unaffected,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy and co-author of the report. “As with 9/11, we will look back on COVID-19 as when governments acquired new intrusive powers to control their populations.”