2021 was a bad year for Internet freedom, and 2022 hasn’t started particularly well. Free expression online is under a massive strain, most notably in authoritarian regimes like Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda. This was one of the main findings from a Freedom House report published last September entitled Freedom on the Net 2021. Hopes of 2022 being better have been somewhat dashed by the recent news coming out of Iran whereby the government has sought to restrict internet access by creating a Chinese style firewall. These worrying declines in online freedom are a direct result of two processes which have reached unprecedented levels within the last year.
Firstly, across the world, the pursuit of governments in regulating the internet has clashed with technology companies’ requirements to protect users’ rights. The report points to around 48 countries pursuing new laws for tech companies on content, data, or competition throughout the year. Whilst some of these actions were taken in the interests of protecting users from online abuse and harassment, much of these actions have been taken to limit free expression and user privacy. The authors of the report accuse China of being the biggest abuser, with recent measures taken by the Chinese government imposing prison sentences for dissenters and severely censoring information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, it will undoubtedly alarm the authors from Freedom House that another state is copying these methods of internet repression.
Secondly, the report which was published in the U.S. points to the worrying rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories spreading on social media in the country. The report believes that Silicon Valley courses of action implemented to tackle these issues have been insufficient in dealing with these new threats to the democratic process. As a result, conspiracies around the Covid vaccine and 2020 U.S. election have increased polarisation of the American political system and led to events in the past year like the insurrection of the US Capitol. On the plus side, the report praises recent measures taken by President Biden stating that, “a raft of new proposed laws, policies, and appointments in 2021 signalled a potential shift in approach by the administration”. Biden has renewed transactions between US individuals and entities with Chinese-owned social media sites like TikTok, which had previously been banned by the Trump administration.
However, many more substantial measures need to be taken to ensure that 2022 is a better year for internet freedom. Firstly, social media sites must do more to bypass repressive legislation within authoritarian countries that are aimed at restricting internet access and act tougher on governments that push tech companies to remove posts critical of them. Secondly, much more needs to be done to tackle the perpetual cycle of misinformation and trolling deliberately aimed at subverting democratic and political processes across the world.
With sizable elections coming up in France, Brazil and the USA and the next phase of the pandemic it is important that steps are made to ensure that these processes are carried out in the most meaningful and truthful way possible. Whilst it can be disheartening to see the recent news in Iran, and no doubt other states will follow, states can only do so much to restrict online access. The power and status of the tech companies is already huge, and it’s growing. Therefore, with their power and influence over political processes, it is more important than ever that they stand up for freedom and sincerity. Otherwise, what are they here for?
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