Internet ‘freedom’ at its lowest in 11 years: study



The internet is an increasingly unwelcome place for many. A new study suggests that online “freedom” is in decline — for two very different reasons, depending on who you ask.

The annual report by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, said this year is the 11th consecutive to see a global internet freedom decline.

The “Freedom on the Net” report rates countries on a 100-point scale, with the bottom considered least free. This year, scores internationally range from as low as 10 points in China to 96 points in Iceland. Scores 71 and above are designated “free,” while scores below 40 are “not free”; everything in the middle is considered “partly free.”

Considerations made in scoring include the extent to which free speech is legally protected, the proliferation of misinformation and hate speech and whether government authorities were known to target individual users, such as in India or Hungary where journalists and activists have been hit with state-supported spyware.

Amid its fifth year in decline, the United States just makes the mark with 75 points, but experts say it needs improvement. For some Americans, the internet is a haven for free speech. And that’s exactly the problem.

“False, misleading, and manipulated information continued to proliferate online, even affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results,” the report states among its key findings, adding that such “conspiracist content … shook the foundations of the American political system.”

“The United States played a leading role in shaping early internet norms around free speech and free markets, but its laissez-faire approach to the tech industry created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance,” the report added.

Indeed, hate speech has been free to flourish online under unfettered First Amendment rights — thanks, in part, due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It’s a law that protects tech giants like Facebook from seeing lawsuits over what its users say and do on the platform, however illicit or threatening. The rule absolves them of any legal responsibility for content therein, even if their service should facilitate defamation or, say, provide a meeting ground for hate groups. This isn’t so in other countries, such as Australia, where the nation’s highest court has ruled that media companies, including online social networks, are essentially publishers, and liable for their content.

It’s fundamental to how social media sites in the US do business. After the Senate Commerce Committee voted to subpoena tech bosses over proposals by the Trump Administration to curtail Section 230 last year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg urged Congress for thoughtful reform. He said, “Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built and ensured important values like free expression and openness were part of how platforms operate. Changing it is a significant decision. However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”

Meanwhile, study authors called out other nations, including Belarus, Uganda and China, for tightening internet access and restrictions for their citizens during the past year. Among them, Myanmar saw the largest decline ever recorded by Freedom House, with a 14-point backslide.

China’s ruling Communist Party has recently enacted several notable regulations to its state-run internet services — tantamount to government censorship here in the US. Late last year, their leaders ordered mobile web browsers to restrict Chinese users’ access to certain social media sites, the culture of which the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has deemed “uncivilized.” For Chinese media and entertainers, streaming online or on television, speech or songs containing “vulgar” or “incorrect political” language are also criminalized, under threat of fines or even jail time.

The Freedom House report highlights a new, “third way” developed by the European Union, somewhere “between China’s digital authoritarianism and the traditional US emphasis on unrestricted speech and free markets.” Plans include establishing “large intermediaries” to monitor internet services and draw up detailed reports on content moderation, curation and advertising, while due process protections would also be established for users who seek to appeal decisions affecting their content.

The US Senate has seen similar proposals on their docket, such as the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, a bipartisan bill to fix Section 230’s shortcomings. It would require companies like Facebook to publish details about how they moderate content and complaints, establish a reporting and appeals process for their users and remove any court-sanctioned content. Such legislation would put the onus on platform creators to decide — in writing available to users — the parameters of acceptable content and adhere to it strictly.

Yet some critics argue such legislation would put too big a burden on content moderators. Said the Facebook CEO in an opening statement to Congress in March, “Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,” he reassured.

However, Zuckerberg added, “Platforms should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection — that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day — but they should be required to have adequate systems in place to address unlawful content.”



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