WASHINGTON – Governments worldwide are stepping up the 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”, said.
The accusations made by Freedom House are “without basis, unprofessional, irresponsible, and have ulterior motives,” said Chinese foreign ministry official spokesman Lu Kang at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Cyberspace is complex, he added, and requires “the global community, including governments, businesses, think tanks and media to adopt a constructive attitude to maintain it.”
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.