Governments use pandemic to crack down on digital rights, report says

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The Freedom on the Net 2020 report, an assessment of 65 countries released on Wednesday, found that the pandemic had accelerated the decline in freedom of speech and internet privacy for the tenth year in a row, and accused some governments of ‘use the virus as a pretext to suppress critical discourse.

“The pandemic is accelerating society’s dependence on digital technologies at a time when the Internet is becoming increasingly less free,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, which is funded by the US government. “Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily reused for political repression. ”

Amid the pandemic, internet connectivity has become a lifeline for essential information and services – from educational platforms and healthcare portals, to employment opportunities and social interactions. But state and non-state actors are also exploiting the crisis to erode freedoms online.

Nowhere has this approach been more apparent than in China, according to Freedom House, which ranked the country the worst in internet freedom for a sixth consecutive year.

Since the coronavirus epidemic first emerged in Wuhan last December, China has deployed every tool in its arsenal of internet control – from digital surveillance to automated censorship and systematic arrests – to stem the spread, not only of Covid-19, but unofficial. government information and criticism, the researchers found.

These practices are not unique to China, details the report.

Censoring the coronavirus epidemic

Intent on downplaying adverse Covid-19 coverage, authorities have censored independent reporting in at least 28 countries and stopped online reviews in 45 countries, according to the report.

Following China’s lead, governments from Bangladesh to Belarus blocked reports and websites that contradicted official sources, revoking their credentials and detaining journalists who challenged their statistics. In Venezuela, for example, the government banned an opposition website with information on Covid-19, while journalists were detained and forced to remove online content about the spread of the virus in hospitals.

While disinformation about the coronavirus is a pandemic in and of itself, Freedom House says at least 20 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Azerbaijan, have imposed excessively broad restrictions on speech, including many new laws or broad rules governing “false” information, according to the report. In one of the most draconian cases, Zimbabwe has adopted an emergency provision sanctioning ‘false’ information about Covid-19, which could subject offenders to 20 years in prison.

Allie Funk, senior research analyst on technology and democracy at Freedom House, co-author of the report, said the long-term impact of these laws would be devastating for free speech, highlighting self-censorship and the climate of fear that They create.

“People may be less likely to report certain issues because they don’t want to face criminal penalties or don’t want to face targeted harassment or violence from pro-government supporters online,” he said. declared Funk.

At least 13 countries have gone even further, imposing Internet shutdowns that have kept populations entirely in the dark. Long-term connectivity restrictions affecting internet and phone services in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, severely limit the ability of residents to learn about the virus or get vital information about its spread.

Surveillance in the name of public health

Tracking the spread of the coronavirus is key to limiting new infections – a tactic that has been credited with the low number of deaths from Covid-19 in South Korea, for example. But without strong privacy protections, Freedom House warns that certain technological responses to the pandemic could pave the way for future surveillance states.

Governments in at least 30 countries have invoked the pandemic to exploit telecommunications data for mass surveillance with little oversight, Freedom House said. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, among others, this work is carried out by or in tandem with national security and military agencies.

Global democracy in crisis during coronavirus pandemic, report says

According to the report, smartphone apps for contact tracing, app quarantines, and monitoring a person’s health status have been introduced in at least 54 countries, with few privacy protections. In China, for example, dozens of health code and contact tracing apps collect personal data that authorities can easily access. In Singapore, migrant workers who are already discriminated against are required to use apps, which sets them apart from other residents.

While contact tracing plays a vital role in containing the virus, some digital surveillance tools are deployed in haste and with little responsibility for how personal data – like location, names, and mailing lists. contacts – could be associated with public information with dangerous effect. And that could turn out to be a slippery slope, warns Freedom House.

“History has shown that technologies and laws passed during a crisis tend to stick around,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy and co-author of the report. “As with September 11, we will view COVID-19 as a time when governments have acquired new intrusive powers to control their populations. “

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