Freedom of Speech Declining in the Internet Era-New Tools for Repression by Autocrats

The Economist October 16th 2021 pp52-54 |International|Online censorship| “Walls of silence” “Autocrats are finding new ways to squash free expression online”


Read The Economist for all the details



le-vpn.com source of image only published 02NOV2018


Summary offered by 2244


Freedom House tracks online freedom around the world. They report that in the “last year police in at least 55 of the 70 countries monitored...investigated, arrested or convicted someone because of posts made on social media.” In their report on “Change in internet freedom score, 2020-21", they noted that 30 countries escalated suppression and only 18 receded suppression. Numerical examples are the U.S. was -1 (slightly less free), Germany -1, Belarus -7 (less free) and Myanmar -14 (Severely less free). (See the map in the article).


It is notable that Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded November 8th to Dmitry Muratov (Russia-Nocaya Gazeta) and Maria Ressa (Philippines-Rappler) for their individual and organization’s “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” The award “recognizes the sad truth. Globally, freedom of expression is in retreat.” The old fashion ways of silencing dissent like “sword against the pen” (“or bullets against bloggers”) are still in play by gangs etc. but these long-standing methods are being reinforced or replaced “by newer techniques.”


China has the greatest control of the internet and social media in its country. China started early in 1996 when there were only 150,000 users allowing the “the Communist Party ... [to oversee]... the construction of a walled-off information sphere” complete with many tools including an army of moderators and censors.


Many other countries are, in less comprehensive ways, pursuing tighter control of social media as well. Sometimes, especially in crisis, countries will just shut down the internet and this reportedly happened in 29 countries including India and Egypt. The Chinese have elaborate controls, but also used the shutdown model in targeted areas like Xinjiang and now those inhabitants, Uyghurs, must “install mobile apps that spy on their online activities.” In other countries, police may stop a suspect and search their internet history on the spot for anti-government and other disinformation.


“Any government can order an internet service provider to blacklist sites it doesn’t like” with Turkey reportedly blocking 470,000 sites. China and other countries too are working on creating an alternate internet that they hope will provide similar services demanded by the population but which they can control. China has the drive, control and resources to overwhelm foreign sites with their own China-based web services.


Russia too is a good example, they have “plans for purging the domestic internet of free thought…[as]...Vladimir Putin claims that the global internet is a tool of the CIA. Putin’s 2019 “Internet Sovereignty” law has the stated goal of “protecting Russia from online threats to its security.” “That law ordered all providers to install technology that allows the Kremlin to track, filter and reroute traffic.” Russia especially likes technology that greatly slows loading-time of target websites. Being a slowed site effectively “renders them useless for distributing photos and video.” Tools that aristocrats worry could be used to persuade and even mobilize anti-government groups. Apparently, the slowing method is “difficult for organizations...to detect.” As a further move, all mobile phones sold in Russia must be set to use Yandex, a Russian search engine by default.”


Freedom House also reports that “45 countries in its sample were found to have used…’spyware’ at some point in the past 12 months.” An Israeli organization known as NSO Group notes that governments in Mexico, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates have “surveilled...journalists, politicians and human-rights activists.”


Another tactic of China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Bangladesh, now is that web firms must store user data “in the country in which it is generated” The idea being that being local eases the path to control. A more severe tactic is by Mr. Erdogan in Turkey where “publication of ‘disinformation’ on social media [be] a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars.”


To their credit some countries are making small steps to allow recourse against potentially incorrect judgements.