Freedom on the Net 2018 report found online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly “poisoned” the digital space, while the unbridled collection of personal data is infringing on privacy.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
“This pattern poses a threat to the open internet and endangers prospects for greater democracy worldwide.”
Chinese officials have held sessions on controlling information with 36 of the 65 countries assessed, and provided telecom and surveillance equipment to a number of foreign governments, Freedom House said.
The accusations made by Freedom House are “without basis, unprofessional, irresponsible, and have ulterior motives,” said Chinese foreign ministry official spokesman Lu Kang at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Cyberspace is complex, he added, and requires “the global community, including governments, businesses, think tanks and media to adopt a constructive attitude to maintain it.”
The report found 17 governments approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting “fake news,” while 18 countries increased surveillance or weakened encryption protection to more closely monitor their citizenry.
According to the researchers, internet freedom declined in 26 countries from June 2017 to May 2018. Gains were seen in 19 countries, most of them minor.
– China’s ‘techno-dystopia’ –
One of the greatest threats, Freedom House said, is efforts by China to remake the digital world in its “techno-dystopian” image.
It cited a sweeping Chinese cybersecurity requirement that local and foreign companies “immediately stop transmission” of banned content, and compels them to ensure that data on Chinese users is hosted within the country.
This has been followed by “hundreds” of new directives on what people can and cannot do online, and tighter controls on the use of VPNs to evade detection.
The report said leaked documents and other evidence suggest as many as a million Muslims may be held in internment camps in Xinjiang, many as a result of nonviolent online activities.
China appears to be using its big tech firms involved in telecom infrastructure to extend its dominance and gain an edge in surveillance, according to Freedom House.
Companies such as Huawei — largely banned from contracts in the US and Australia — are building infrastructure in many parts of the world including Africa and Latin America, according to Freedom House board chairman Michael Chertoff, a former US secretary of homeland security.