Internet Users Pay the Price for Government, Big Tech Interventions — Freedom on the Net 2021

Independent watchdog organisation Freedom House has published its Freedom on the Net 2021 report, which states that governments in at least 48 countries have in the past year pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data and competition. 

With a few positive exceptions, attempts to regulate the tech industry has resulted in greater access to private user data and an infringement on free expression, the report said.

The report assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, which comprise 88 percent of global internet users.

Pakistan received a score of 25 out of 100, a one point drop from last year’s 26 out of 100. China was ranked as the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row, with the COVID-19 pandemic remaining one of the most heavily censored topics. Chinese officials also cracked down on the country’s tech giants on grounds of alleged abuses related to competition and data protection, but these moves only further concentrated power in the hands of the authoritarian state. 

Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda saw the most deterioration, as state forces cracked down amid electoral and constitutional crises. 

Ecuador experienced the largest improvement, followed by The Gambia. Iceland ranked at the top of the report, followed by Estonia and then Costa Rica.

The United States’ score declined for the fifth consecutive year, as misinformation proliferated online, affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results. The report said that the new administration is taking promising steps to enforce stronger protections for internet users.

Overall, global internet freedom declined for an 11th consecutive year.

“More governments arrested users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before. Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms. Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors,” the report said.

The report recommended that democracies should ensure that internet regulations enable users to express themselves, openly share information and hold the powerful accountable.

The report contends that a shared global vision for a free and open internet does not exist, so governments are adopting their own approaches to policing online activities. “Policymakers in many countries have cited a vague need to retake control of the internet from foreign powers, multinational corporations, and in some cases, civil society,” the report said. 

The report sorted these actions into three categories pertaining to online content, personal data and market behavior, with many new measures in each category threatening the interests of users.

In terms of surveillance tech, authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of having access to sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology supplied by secretive companies like NSO Group, Cellebrite, Circles, and FinFisher.

“The most promising legislation seeks to address online ills while bringing both corporate and state practices into compliance with international human rights principles such as necessity, transparency, oversight, and due process,” the report noted.

Internet freedom in Pakistan

The report said that the Pakistani government tightly controls the online environment, with authorities using internet shutdowns, platform blocking, arrests and harsh convictions to suppress unwanted online speech.

The report also mentioned the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2020, which it said would “expand authorities’ ability to censor online content; allow the government to compel social media companies to moderate content; impose onerous registration requirements on social media companies; and enable authorities to gain access to encrypted data.” 

Digital activists and journalists are also being increasingly subjected to harassment, including some cases of physical assaults and enforced disappearances.

The report also pointed out the influence that the military exerts over security and other policy issues, and said it intimidates the media while enjoying impunity for “indiscriminate or extralegal use of force.” 

The report also pointed out attacks carried out by militant groups on civilians, particularly religious minority communities and perceived opponents.

As of June 2021, 103 million people in Pakistan subscribed to broadband internet, a 25 million increase from December 2019, and 46.9 percent of the population had access to broadband internet. 

The report also took note of various times during the year when social media platforms and mobile signals were blocked, such as when TLP leader Saad Rizvi was arrested after a series of violence protests. It also took note of the series of bans on video-sharing app TikTok.

The report also pointed out the allegations against the PTA of a lack of transparency and independence, as well as its broad powers over online content and licensing of service providers. It also mentioned the PTA’s direction to social media platforms and content hosts to remove content it deemed illegal or immodest.

The PTA routinely restricts content in a “nontransparent and arbitrary fashion,” the report added. Although PECA legally mandates that the PTA issue notices when restricting content, the agency practically rarely does, which results in less chances of appealing orders or undertaking judicial review.

Furthermore, new proposals would further grant the government power to regulate social media and communications platforms. One such example is the Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance, which proposes centralizing regulatory control over electronic, print, and social media. The draft for the ordinance was unanimously denounced by media and civil society groups.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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