WASHINGTON — Governments worldwide are stepping up use of online tools, in many cases inspired by China’s model, to suppress dissent and tighten their grip on power, a human rights watchdog study found Thursday.
The annual Freedom House study of 65 countries found global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018, amid a rise in what the group called “digital authoritarianism.”
The Freedom on the Net 2018 report found online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly “poisoned” the digital space, while the unbridled collection of personal data is infringing on privacy.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
“This pattern poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”
Chinese officials have held sessions on controlling information with 36 of the 65 countries assessed, and provided telecom and surveillance equipment to a number of foreign governments, Freedom House said.
The report found 17 governments approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting “fake news,” while 18 countries increased surveillance or weakened encryption protection to more closely monitor their citizenry.
According to the researchers, internet freedom declined in 26 countries from June 2017 to May 2018. Gains were seen in 19 countries, most of them minor.
One of the greatest threats, Freedom House said, is efforts by China to remake the digital world in its “techno-dystopian” image.
It cited a sweeping Chinese cybersecurity that requires that local and foreign companies “immediately stop transmission” of banned content, and compels them to ensure that data on Chinese users is hosted within the country.
This has been followed by “hundreds” of new directives on what people can and cannot do online, and tighter controls on the use of VPNs to evade detection.