Information wants to be free, as the saying goes, but a new report from the US non-governmental organisation Freedom House suggests that freedom on the internet is in steady decline.
Propaganda, emotional manipulation, paid trolls, automated bots and widespread surveillance are all strangling the idealistic potential of the internet, according to the report. It finds that more than 30 countries employ “opinion shapers” to spread government views.
An increasing number of governments are resorting to blanket shutdowns of communications, especially on mobile phones. National and regional governments are using cheap and convenient off-the-shelf tools for internet surveillance against their political foes.
Al Jazeera spoke with Sanja Kelly, director for internet freedom at Freedom House, who led the project.
Al Jazeera: ‘Freedom’ feels like a very subjective term. How do you define a free internet?
Sanja Kelly: That would be internet without major government censorship, so it would be internet where the government does not block or filter internet content, anything related to politics or human rights or social issues, as we have seen in many countries around the world.
It is also the internet where governments do not surveil their citizens. And where people are not jailed or attacked for their writings online.
Al Jazeera: Where does freedom on the internet stand right now? Is the internet overall, around the world, becoming less or more free?
Kelly: Unfortunately, for the seventh consecutive year our study showcases that freedom has been in decline. This year in particular, that decline has been due to very worrisome threats regarding government manipulation of social media.
Governments do this through different means. Through the use of paid pro-government commentators, through computerised bots, through online propaganda, through the spread of fake news and other methods.
A lot of people have been focusing on government manipulation lately, led by the Russian government, of elections here in the United States, but that has actually been a global issue, much bigger than what’s been happening here.
In fact, according to our study, 18 countries around the world have seen manipulation around election time over the past year alone.
Apart from that, we’ve identified several other trends that are quite worrisome. One is that more and more governments are using internet shutdowns around elections or around anti-government protests to stifle dissent.
We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who are being attacked for just posting their anti-government views online.
In fact, in 30 countries out of 65 that we examined, someone was physically attacked, in some cases quite brutally, just for writing on social media about their political beliefs. And in eight countries people were killed for similar issues.
We’ve also seen more and more governments using cyberattacks against their critics, and that comes in many forms.
So, unfortunately, this is something that’s quite worrisome, and it’s important for the international community to take notice.
Al Jazeera: How do you account for the increased repression and restriction? Why is it that nation states are getting better at cracking down on citizens’ use of the internet?
Kelly: One reason is that more people are going online. Just a few years ago only a small fraction of each government’s population had access to the internet, but now the internet has become how most people communicate, how they conduct business, obtain education, and how they organise themselves politically.
And many governments have now taken notice, and they fear the power of the internet.
So what we have seen is that as this internet penetration has grown in each country, governments – particularly authoritarian governments – are trying to suppress people’s free speech and ability to organise.
Al Jazeera: Are they becoming technologically more sophisticated in what they’re able to do?
Kelly: Absolutely. In fact, when we started this project eight years ago, it was countries like China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia that were some of the leaders when it came to internet restrictions. But now we’re seeing it in more and more countries, in part because some of the tools that enable this repression are readily available.
For example, when it comes to certain surveillance tools, there are many companies – including many companies from the United States and from other Western countries – that sell surveillance tools to some of the oppressive governments, who are then able to buy them in this very loosely regulated international market. And then they’re able to use them for repression and to suppress critical voices, including online journalists and other dissidents.
When it comes to online manipulation, for example, we’ve also seen that a lot of governments now are actually learning from other countries, like China, how repression is done. So, for example, some years ago, about 12 or 13 years ago, it was actually China who first started paying people to post pro-government comments.
In fact, it was through this emergence of the so-called 50-cent party, where people are paid 50 cents for posting each pro-government comment, that we saw this trend originally emerge.
But, unfortunately, many governments – initially there being after China, Russia, but then governments in Asia, and then the Middle East, and then Latin America – have actually caught up and they have learned and now have implemented within their own borders.
Al Jazeera: Have they become more sophisticated at understanding not just the technological solutions for manipulating access, but also at understanding the way the human mind responds to information on the Web, responds to the emotions that it can provoke?
Kelly: Yes, and I think that these disinformation techniques are a prime example of that. Because I think just through some analytics of social media they’re able to see exactly what kind of content people like, what kind of content people respond to, and then, based on that, they’re able to shape their own messages.
And unfortunately those are the same tactics that advertisers use to help people like their products, and now we see actually governments using the same methods to spread their own pro-government messages and to keep themselves in power.
Al Jazeera: What should governments do? Do they regulate this? Do they militarise it? What’s the solution here?
Kelly: Our primary goal is for the international community to be aware, so that different stakeholders – whether that be democratic governments, or the private sector, or civic society and NGOs and journalists – can know what the key issues are, based on facts, and then try to come up with solutions.
I think in terms of what can be done, that’s a big and tough question. But I think the number-one step would be, for example, looking at what actions are most problematic.
So one of the actions that we identify in our report has to do with manipulation during elections. So then one of the key steps would be to actually make online political ads transparent, which they’re currently not.
So each government should actually have a regulation that stipulates that any time a political ad is placed, it needs to be clear who paid for it, and which demographics were meant to see that political ad. That would be one of the steps.
Another, of course, is much broader, and it has to do with public education. Because the public just needs to know much, much better how to discern which news comes from trustworthy sources and which news is fake news.
So I think, generally, in the long term, making efforts to reform the educational system is one of the key ways of moving forward.
Al Jazeera: You mentioned that there are many technological products available on the open market. Could someone – the UN – treat these as weapons that need to be governed under a convention that crosses borders?
Kelly: I think that’s an interesting question. I would think that because many of these tools actually come from places like the United States and from Western countries, one of the steps would be actually a regulation in this country and elsewhere that these companies cannot sell such tools to repressive regimes, where we know that these tools are going to be used against dissidents and online journalists. That would be one of the key steps.
Read the report by Sanja Kelly and her colleagues here.