Internet freedom is declining for 8th straight year, says NGO report

Freedom on the internet has declined for the eighth consecutive year around the world,according to a new report issued by Freedom House, a human-rights NGO based in Washington, DC.

17 countries have passed laws to restrict online speech in the past year, says Adrian Shahbaz

The latest report on worldwide internet freedom by human rights group Freedom House is discouraging. (Pixabay)
Listen11:52

It hasn't been a very good year for the internet.

Numerous privacy breaches, trolling, fake news and the end of net neutrality have all weakened the net experience — and that's just in the United States.

Globally, freedom on the internet has declined for the eighth consecutive year. That's according to a new report issued by Freedom House, a human-rights NGO based in Washington, DC.

Adrian Shahbaz has been researching and writing the annual report for many of those years. This year's examination was sobering, he told Spark host Nora Young.

Adrian Shahbaz (Freedom House)

"Over the past year 17 countries that we cover had passed or proposed new laws to restrict online speech," Shahbaz said.

The report examines access and free-speech rights in 65 countries, whose residents make up almost 90 per cent of the internet's users.

"The number of countries that have these so-called 'patriotic trolls,' paid pro-government commentators that shape online discussions, has risen each year to now where it's in almost half of all the countries that we cover," he said.

China scored the lowest in the rankings, because it restricts access to the internet so severely, and has set up such a strong system for online surveillance, he said.

"Over the past year we've really seen how China has been unlike any other country in terms of channeling technology for its own domestic repression," Shahbaz said.

More worrisome, however, is how China has been exporting that model to other countries.

As China steps exerts more power on the international stage, it's also using its position as the world's top manufacturer of digital technology to extend its influence, he said.

Over the past year we've really seen how China has been unlike any other country in terms of channeling technology for its own domestic repression- Adrian Shahbaz

"We're starting to see this kind of central planning on behalf of the Chinese government, whereby the technological prowess of Chinese companies is a very important part of China's overall global strategy for dominating the 21st century."

All these things, including what's happening in the United States, mean the idea of global citizenship enabled by the internet seems to be slipping away, he said, and could be replaced with a Balkanized system where the internet experience is dramatically different depending on whether you live under a democratic or authoritarian regime, he said.

Canada held onto its third-place position in terms of internet freedom, behind Iceland and Estonia.

However, that doesn't mean it's beyond reproach.

Shahbaz cited a Supreme Court decision that upheld the Canadian government's authority to force Google to take down any pages that violate Canadian law — not just in Canada, but everywhere in the world. Although there is little worry that a Canadian government might abuse that power, such a precedent could be cited by an authoritarian government, leading to "troubling" consequences, he said.

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