The Freedom on the Net 2020 report, an assessment of 65 countries released on Wednesday, found that the pandemic has accelerated the decline in freedom of speech and privacy on the Internet for the tenth consecutive year and accused some governments of using the virus as a pretext for measures against critical speech.
“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technology at a time when the Internet is becoming less and less free,” said Michael J. Abramovich, president of Freedom House, funded by the US government. “Without adequate guarantees of privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can easily be restored to political repression.”
These practices are not unique to China, the report said.
Censorship of the coronavirus outbreak
In an effort to downplay the unfavorable coverage of Covid-19, authorities are censoring independent reports in at least 28 countries and arresting online critics in 45 countries, according to the report.
Following China’s leadership, governments from Bangladesh to Belarus have blocked reports and websites that contradict official sources, revoked their credentials and detained journalists who challenged their statistics. In Venezuela, for example, the government banned a website with information about Covid-19, created by the opposition, while journalists were detained and forced to delete online content about the spread of the virus in hospitals.
Although misinformation about the coronavirus is itself a pandemic, Freedom House says at least 20 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Azerbaijan, have imposed too broad speech restrictions, many of them new or expanded laws controlling “false” “information, according to a report. In one of the most draconian cases, Zimbabwe has passed an emergency provision punishing “false” information about Covid-19, which could expose offenders to up to 20 years in prison.
Ali Funk, a senior researcher in technology and democracy at Freedom House, who co-authored the report, said the long-term impact of these laws would be devastating to free speech, citing self-censorship and the climate of fear they create.
“People may be less inclined to report on certain issues because they don’t want to face criminal penalties or don’t want to face targeted harassment or violence by pro-government supporters online,” Funk said.
At least 13 countries have gone a step further by imposing an Internet shutdown that has kept the population completely in the dark. Long-term connectivity restrictions affecting the Internet and telephone services in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, have severely limited residents’ ability to learn about the virus or obtain life-saving information about its spread.
Monitoring in the name of public health
Tracking the spread of the coronavirus is key to curbing further infections – a tactic that is considered the low number of Covid-19 deaths in South Korea, for example. But without solid privacy protections, Freedom House warns that some of the pandemic’s technological responses could pave the way for future states to monitor.
In at least 30 countries, governments are citing the pandemic to use telecommunications data for mass surveillance with little surveillance, Freedom House said. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, among others, this work is done by or in tandem with national security services and military agencies.
Although contact tracking plays a vital role in the content of the virus, some digital surveillance tools are being introduced quickly and with little accountability on how personal data – such as location, names and contact lists – can be combined with dangerously public information . And that could be a slippery slope, warns Freedom House.
“History shows that technology and laws passed during a crisis tend to linger,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy and co-author of the report. “As on 9/11, we will look back at COVID-19 as a time when governments have acquired new, intrusive powers to control their populations.”