Report: Internet Freedom Withers in ‘The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow’

TOPSHOT - This picture taken on October 10, 2017 shows a party flag of the Chinese Communist Party displayed at an exhibition showcasing China's progress in the past five years at the Beijing Exhibition Center.
WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Freedom House published the 2020 edition of its annual “Freedom on the Net” report on Wednesday. The report grimly concluded that Internet freedom around the world has diminished in the “digital shadow” of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, accelerating the steady erosion of online freedom Freedom House has chronicled over the past ten years.

The rise of “cyber sovereignty,” the notion that authoritarian governments like China should have their own versions of the Internet controlled and policed as they see fit, is a matter of special concern.

The Freedom House report uses an expansive definition of Internet freedom that leads to some paradoxical judgments. For example, China is the world’s leading practitioner of cyber sovereignty, having created an authoritarian Internet backwater with its “Great Firewall” and unabashedly insisting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has an absolute right to control access to information for its citizens. 

On the other hand, Freedom House considers American and Indian bans on Chinese software such as TikTok and WeChat to be exercises of “cyber sovereignty,” as well, even though those applications were blacklisted over well-founded concerns that they compromise the security of users, enable the CCP to harvest their data for its own purposes, spread Chinese propaganda, and enforce Chinese speech codes upon those who employ the platforms. 

In a similar vein, the Freedom House report regards spreading false information as an assault upon Internet freedom, but the measures taken to block disinformation also compromise Internet freedom. This conflict was evident when the report chastised “the failings of Internet freedom’s traditional champion,” the United States:

Internet freedom dropped by one point in the United States, which has now experienced four consecutive years of decline. Even as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms were used to great effect to organize civic activism like the Black Lives Matter protests, growing surveillance of social media by federal and local law enforcement agencies undermined these tools’ usefulness, especially after several people experienced targeted harassment and even spurious criminal charges for their posts or retweets. The coverage period also saw the online sphere flooded with politicized disinformation and harmful misinformation related to both the protests and COVID-19

The report denounced the Trump administration’s action against China’s WeChat and TikTok as “an arbitrary and disproportionate response to the genuine risks posed by the apps, particularly in the absence of strong data-privacy legislation that outlines the standards Americans should expect from domestic and foreign companies.” 

“While few countries have done more than the United States over the decades to develop and promote the global uptake of a free and open Internet, this year once again signaled the decline of U.S. leadership in cyber diplomacy and a broader retreat by Washington from international cooperation to zero-sum thinking,” Freedom House judged. It would have been interesting if the authors listed the “few countries” that have supposedly done more to build a free and open Internet, and precisely what their contributions were.

Freedom House mourned the tremendous damage to Internet freedom from the coronavirus pandemic, which clearly increased the amount of censorship and government control over information in both relatively free and clearly authoritarian nations. 

“Nowhere has censorship been more sophisticated and systematic than in China, whose authorities rushed to control the global narrative on their initial unwillingness and inability to contain the outbreak in Wuhan,” said the Freedom House report, noting that countries around the world followed China’s lead to varying degrees, in many cases using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on political dissidents and troublesome journalists.

The report noted that 28 countries censored websites and social media during the pandemic, 13 imposed full-blown Internet shutdowns, 20 added or expanded regulations on online speech, and 45 arrested or detained Internet users for speech related to the coronavirus. A disturbing number of Internet users grew more comfortable with invasions of their privacy in the name of public health, while the number of “surveillance apps” installed on smartphones exploded during the pandemic.

“The rapid and nearly ubiquitous rollout of pandemic-related apps presents an immense risk of privacy, personal security, and broader human rights,” Freedom House warned, expressing great concern that the growth of artificial intelligence software could transform the pandemic into the birthing cry of a global “AI surveillance state.” The report included a chilling infographic illustrating all the ways Chinese citizens are monitored as they stroll down a typical city street.   

The coronavirus once again illustrated the paradox between the freedom of information and crusades against “disinformation,” as Freedom House chastised both governments that restricted the flow of information about the Chinese coronavirus and governments that did not restrict “disinformation” enough. The recommendations at the end of the report leaned against censorship as a solution to the Internet’s problems, noting the tendency toward “arbitrary and disproportionate” responses that “unduly restrict users’ cultural, social, and political speech.”

“The future of privacy and other fundamental rights depends on what we do next,” Freedom House cautioned. “As schools reopen, people head back to offices, and travel resumes despite the ongoing pandemic, the push for mandatory mobile apps, biometric technology, and health passports will only grow. It is vital for the public to consider whether certain new forms of surveillance are necessary or desirable in a democratic society, to resist overblown or unrealistic promises from promoters of high-tech tools, and to push elected officials to build strong privacy protections and other demographic safeguards into law.”

Cyber sovereignty will probably be the most enduring problem outlined in “Freedom on the Net 2020,” since it will influence humanity’s response to every other issue. There is simply no set of universal standards for Internet freedom that every government would agree to — not even the most minimal of compromises is possible with nations like China, Russia, or Iran, which claim they have an entirely different but equally valid understanding of “human rights” and the absolute authority to enforce it. 

The Internet has fragmented, making cyber sovereignty possible. There is no chance that the Internet experience of a Chinese citizen will ever be remotely comparable to what an American sees when he goes online. China proved that Great Firewalls are possible, and soon every authoritarian regime will have one, hiring Chinese consultants to help build them.

The more vexing problem is that the Internet is still interconnected, and as Freedom House’s lament over a decade of declining freedom indicates, it is sinking to the lowest common denominator of freedom. Authoritarian control of the Internet shapes the information flowing into free societies far more effectively than free nations can weaken tyrannical regimes with their classical liberal values. To put it bluntly, the global Internet is becoming more like the Chinese Internet, and as Freedom House documented, China’s coronavirus pandemic greatly accelerated that process.

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