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Global Net freedom on the decline; India’s censorship regime creating uneven playing field: Freedom House report

It says the environment for human rights online has deteriorated in 29 countries, with only 20 countries registering net gains

October 05, 2023 08:52 pm | Updated October 06, 2023 05:51 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Image used for representational purpose only.

Image used for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

According to a new report by Freedom House, a Washington DC-based non-profit, global Internet freedom has declined for the 13th consecutive year. The environment for human rights online has deteriorated in 29 countries, with only 20 countries registering net gains.

The report, titled ‘Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence’, has raised a red flag on the increasing use of artificial intelligence by governments for censorship and spread of disinformation.

The report, the 13th edition of an annual study of human rights online, covers developments between June 2022 and May 2023. It evaluates Internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88% of the world’s Internet users.

As per the report, the sharpest rise in digital repression was witnessed in Iran, where authorities shut down Internet service, blocked WhatsApp and Instagram, and increased surveillance in a bid to quell anti-government protests. China, for the ninth straight year, ranked as the world’s worst environment for Internet freedom, with Myanmar the world’s second most repressive for online freedom.

People faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online in a record 55 countries this year, and the number of countries where authorities carry out widespread arrests and impose multi-year prison terms for online activity has risen sharply over the past decade, from 18 in 2014 to 31 in 2023.

Elections, the trigger

The report also detailed how elections were a trigger for digital repression. Ahead of election periods, “many incumbent leaders criminalised broad categories of speech, blocked access to independent news sites, and imposed other controls over the flow of information to sway balloting in their favour,” the report noted.

Detailing AI-enabled digital repression in India, the report stated, “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have incorporated censorship, including the use of automated systems, into the country’s legal framework. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules require large social media platforms to use AI-based moderation tools for broadly defined types of content — such as speech that could undermine public order, decency, morality, or the country’s sovereignty, integrity, and security, or content that officials had previously ordered removed.”

Citing the government’s order to YouTube and Twitter “to restrict access within India to a BBC documentary about communal violence during Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat,” the report stated, “Because the government ordered the restriction of the documentary, the IT Rules require the two platforms to use automated scanning tools to sweep up any additional posts that share the film.”

Warning of adverse repercussions for Indian democracy, the report noted, “As the country prepares for general elections in 2024, the government’s expanding censorship regime is creating an uneven playing field by silencing criticism of and independent reporting on the ruling party.”

Five methods

The report evaluates countries on five censorship methods — Internet connectivity restrictions, blocks on social media platforms, blocks on websites, blocks on VPNs, and forced removal of content — and India engaged in all of them except one (VPN blocking).

India also figured among the list of countries that “blocked websites hosting political, social, or religious content”, deliberately disrupted ICT networks, used pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions, and conducted “technical attacks against government critics or human rights organisations”. On a range of 1 to 100 where ‘100’ represented highest digital freedom and ‘1’ the worst repression, India scored 50, while Iceland, with 94, emerged as the country with the best climate of Internet freedom.

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