Risk to online freedom

What is the news?

The annual “Freedom on the Net” study is disturbing as it claims free expression has declined for the 11th year in succession.

The study done by Freedom House covers 70 countries with over 88 per cent of the world’s users. The report claims online freedom is under unprecedented strain.

What are the findings of the study?

The study assesses Freedom on the Net across nine key areas in awarding a score. Iceland with 96 is the most free digital nation surveyed, while China is the worst with a score of just 10. Freedom scores have declined even in First World democracies such as Australia and the US. While the worst deteriorations were in Myanmar, Uganda and Belarus, India also has a low freedom score.

At least 56 of the surveyed countries have seen arrests for online speech in 2020-21.

In addition, 38 countries have initiated legal changes designed to give governments more access to user-data, often using the rationale of data sovereignty to insist data be stored in local servers.

Governments continue to tighten their grip on freedom of expression, as well as demanding more access to private personal data.

Moreover, large tech companies are being forced by governments into complying with greater state control and censorship. As a result, the rights of net users continue to be eroded.

Authorities in at least 48 countries have tightened rules for posting of content in the last year, and also exploited genuine concerns about online harassment and cybercrime to demand access to the private data of individuals.

There is a rising trend of users being arrested, or otherwise targeted, for non-violent political, social, or religious speech.

The governments of at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining and deploying sophisticated spyware, and data-extraction technologies.

India:

India has a score of 49.

It has seen deteriorations in areas like, social media blocks, political/ social /religious content blocked, deliberate disruption of networks (including shutdowns), pro-government manipulation of online media etc.

What are the recommendations?

Governments should draft laws to robustly protect data privacy, restrict surveillance and set up safeguards against indiscriminate surveillance.

They should discourage the wholesale collection of private information by government agencies.

They should encourage encryption, and restrict the commercial sale of surveillance tools.

Laws to rein in big tech should be designed to improve transparency and accountability, and to give users control of their own data, rather than improve government access to such data.

Content moderation should be through fair and transparent processes rather than government fiat or arbitrary means. Unfortunately, the geopolitical trends seem to run entirely in the opposite direction.

Source: This post is based on the article “Risk to online freedom” published in Business Standard on 22nd Sep 2021.

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