COVID is worsening global internet freedom, report finds

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Governments around the world have seized on the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to expand digital surveillance and harvest more data on their citizens, according to a report out Wednesday from Freedom House, a democracy and human rights research group.

Why it matters: Privacy advocates have warned since early in the pandemic that the tech behind efforts to conduct contact tracing and enforce quarantines and other public safety protocols could be abused and made permanent, particularly in authoritarian countries like China.

What’s happening, according to the report:

Dozens of countries have rolled out government-backed contact-tracing apps without effective laws to protect people from overly expansive data collection.

  • China, Russia, India, Singapore, Ecuador and Bahrain were among the countries that Freedom House found implemented apps that either send reams of data unchecked to government servers or make invasive data and health documentation demands.

Governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to suppress information like unfavorable health statistics and corruption allegations.

  • Many have also imprisoned those who speak out online against government mishandling of the pandemic, and some have at times imposed total internet blackouts on their citizens.

By the numbers: As documented in a release summing up the findings:

Authorities censored reporting on the virus in 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries.

In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a justification to impose vague or overly broad restrictions on speech. Residents of at least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns…

In at least 30 countries, governments are invoking the pandemic to engage in mass surveillance in direct partnership with telecommunications providers and other companies.

— Freedom House

Of note: China was found to have the world’s worst conditions for internet freedom for the sixth consecutive year, but the U.S. was not far behind — in 7th place, with internet freedom worsening for the fourth year running, Freedom House found.

  • Digital surveillance around the Black Lives Matter movement as well as disinformation and threats to social media companies pushed by President Trump contributed to the nation’s poor showing.
  • Iceland boasts the greatest internet freedom, the report found.

What they’re saying: “History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to stick around,” Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s director for technology and democracy and a coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “As with 9/11, we will look back on COVID-19 as a moment when governments gained new, intrusive powers to control their populations.”

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