Rural Area in India. Photo: Rakesh Raman / RMN News Service
Global Internet Freedom Declines: Freedom House Report
Governments are breaking apart the global internet to create more controllable online spaces.
Global internet freedom declined for a 12th consecutive year as more governments erected digital barriers designed to censor dissent and monitor users, according to a report released by Freedom House.
The study finds that more than three-quarters of the world’s internet users now live in countries where authorities punish people for exercising their right to free expression online. The sharpest drop in internet freedom took place in Russia, as the Kremlin intensified its efforts to stifle domestic opposition and muzzle independent media in the wake of its illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The new report, Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet, finds that the internet is more fragmented than ever, with a record number of governments imposing restrictions on what billions of people can access and share online—whether by blocking foreign websites, hoarding personal data, or increasing control over their countries’ technical infrastructure.
The moves by repressive leaders, both within their borders and on the international stage, seek to divide the open internet into a patchwork of repressive enclaves where they can advance their narrow interests and cement their hold on power.
“Authoritarian regimes are building digital walls that hamper the free exchange of information and make it easier to silence dissent, promote dangerous disinformation, and access personal data,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “As more aspects of our lives move online, strengthening internet freedom takes on greater importance for the protection of freedom in general. Digital repression is driving a broader democratic decline around the world, and countering it is vital to the global struggle against authoritarian rule.”
Despite an overall global decline, the report documented some significant improvements in internet freedom, made possible by the tireless work of civil society activists, media groups, and human rights defenders.
A record 26 countries registered net gains in internet freedom for the year. In response to authoritarian governments making inroads at international institutions, a cohort of democracies have come together to shape global cyber standards and advance a positive vision for the internet.
However, the report also finds that many democracies have yet to significantly improve respect for online rights at home, often adopting flawed domestic policies that risk undermining the values they seek to defend abroad.
“The United States and many democracies are making progress, but the gains could be short-lived if more is not done to protect digital rights at home,” said report coauthor Allie Funk, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy. “Democratic leaders should recommit to preserving the benefits of a free and open internet, including by adopting new regulations that strengthen domestic protections, increasing multilateral coordination to address challenges like disinformation and cybercrime, and investing in civil society networks that continue to serve as a first line of defense in resisting digital repression.”
The sharpest downgrades were documented in Russia, Myanmar, Sudan, and Libya. Following the Russian military’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin dramatically intensified its ongoing efforts to suppress domestic dissent and accelerated the closure or exile of the country’s remaining independent media outlets. In at least 53 countries, users faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, often leading to draconian prison terms.
The report adds that governments are breaking apart the global internet to create more controllable online spaces. A record number of national governments blocked websites with nonviolent political, social, or religious content, undermining the rights to free expression and access to information.
A majority of these blocks targeted sources located outside of the country. New national laws posed an additional threat to the free flow of information by centralizing technical infrastructure and applying flawed regulations to social media platforms and user data.