Internet Freedom about More Than Being Free
44 Percent of the World Lives in Countries Where Government Restricts or Limits Citizen Internet Access
Internet freedom across the world has declined for the 12th consecutive year, and more than half the world now lives in countries where the government is imposing material restrictions on citizen access to social media, according to the most recent “Freedom on the Net” report from Freedom House.
Internet access is an essential element of a vibrant, healthy democracy. Voters can’t make informed choices without objective, trustworthy, information on the qualifications of their candidates, what they stand for, and how their campaigns are funded. Journalists can’t perform their traditional watchdog role without access to government meetings and records. Citizens far from the seat of government can’t express their requests or grievances in a timely way without the communication tools the internet offers.
But it’s more than that. Internet freedom is a matter of life and death. Quite literally.
The course of events in the third decade of this century has been reshaped by two cataclysmic events. What started as an outbreak of the coronavirus grew into global pandemic that has resulted in more than 650 million illnesses and claimed approximately 6.7 million lives. Second, just under a year ago, Vladimir Putin turned his quest for a new Russian empire into a brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a quest that is now a full-fledged war resulting in more than 200,000 military and civilian casualties.
Both of these catastrophes have produced incalculable economic consequences for nearly every part of the world. And both have been made worse by authoritarian restrictions on internet freedom and social media access.
In the case of COVID-19, internet restrictions prevented information sharing in the early days and weeks of the outbreak, which could have helped public health officials understand the virus and its properties better, before it became a global crisis. Later, internet restrictions that some interpreted as an organized effort to hide disease data fostered distrust of public health officials and cast doubt on public health messaging. This distrust reinforced skepticism of vaccines and doubts about other preventative measures.
In the case of the war, Kremlin-driven misinformation and disinformation created fertile ground for the propagandized justifications Putin offered for his aggressive moves early on. Later, it blocked out news of setbacks and resistance.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Freedom House report found that the single sharpest decline in internet freedom occurred in Russia. The Kremlin has blocked citizen access to more than 5,000 websites. The same report concludes that the most repressive environment for internet freedom is found in China—for the eighth consecutive year.
Even more concerning, Freedom on the Net concludes that more countries than ever before seem to be moving in the direction of Chinese and Russian policies.
But the report points out that it’s not merely internet restrictions that are on the rise. Governments appear increasingly willing to bend the internet in ways that extend the reach and strength of their own political messaging. Nearly 70% of the world lives in countries where governments actively manipulate online discussions by inserting pro-government voices.