Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism

Fake news, data collection, and the challenge to democracy

By Adrian Shahbaz

The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.

Disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.

Events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships. In April 2018, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified in two congressional hearings about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation. The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes. Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters.

With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities. Over the past 12 months in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, false rumors and hateful propaganda that were spread online incited jarring outbreaks of violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Such rifts often serve the interests of antidemocratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states, which have actively encouraged them through content manipulation.

China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018.

As democratic societies struggle with the challenges of a more dangerous and contested online sphere, leaders in Beijing have stepped up efforts to use digital media to increase their own power, both at home and abroad. China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance. Moreover, its companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to a variety of governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities. Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.

Throughout the year, authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model. Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services. China, Russia, and other repressive states are also demanding that companies store their citizens’ data within their borders, where the information can be accessed by security agencies.

Democracies are famously slow at responding to crises—their systems of checks and balances, open deliberation, and public participation are not conducive to rapid decision-making. But this built-in caution has helped some semidemocratic countries fend off authoritarian-style internet controls over the past year. In May, Kenyan bloggers challenged the constitutionality of criminal provisions against the spread of false news, winning a suspension of the rules pending a final court judgment. That same month, Malaysians voted in a prime minister who promised to rescind a recently adopted law against fake news that was used by his predecessor in a failed attempt to sway the elections. Some countries are not just resisting setbacks, but making real progress on internet freedom. In a significant if imperfect step forward for user privacy, over 500 million citizens in the European Union gained new rights over their personal data on May 25 as part of the General Data Protection Regulation.

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