26.10.23 Review

The Vicious Digital Circle: Authoritarian governments have managed to impose a ‘race to the limit’ of Internet freedom restrictions, and artificial intelligence will only make things worse

The state of Internet freedom is continuing to deteriorate worldwide, not only in authoritarian countries but also in democracies, according to a report titled 'The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence' by Freedom House. This decline is attributed to both the attempts by democracies to defend themselves against online disinformation and propaganda campaigns from authoritarian states and the proliferation of new technologies, including artificial intelligence. Currently, only 17% of the global Internet population enjoys digital freedom, while 36% (including in Russia) exists within conditions of restriction. One increasingly prevalent tactic across the Internet is astroturfing – the imitation of grassroots public campaigns. Governments from 47 countries worldwide have tried to manipulate online discussions by employing specialised commentators for these purposes. According to experts at Freedom House, the emphasis on self-regulation within the IT industry has not proven effective, and clear self-imposed rules are now needed, addressing both state interference and the use of new technologies, particularly artificial intelligence.

Internet freedom around the world has declined for its thirteenth consecutive year, according to Freedom House’s annual 'Freedom on the Net' report. This year, only 17% of global Internet users live in conditions of digital freedom, 35% fall into zones that can be considered partially free, and 36% exist in conditions of digital unfreedom. Attacks on freedom of expression are not limited to dictatorships and autocracies; residents of 55 out of 70 countries monitored have faced legal consequences for expressing themselves online. At the same time, in 41 countries people have been physically assaulted or killed for their online statements.

The worst situation is in Myanmar and Iran, where death sentences have been handed down for online speech, while in Belarus and Nicaragua people have received lengthy prison sentences for their online expressions. The top positions in the Internet freedom ranking are occupied by Iceland and Estonia. Russia finds itself fifth from the bottom of this list, ahead of China but lagging behind countries such as Belarus and Venezuela.

Internet freedom in 2023, Freedom House ranking

The spread of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies has contributed to the worsening state of Internet freedom. This is the focus of Freedom House's 2023 report, 'The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence'. AI-generated text, audio materials, and images are rapidly spreading online and are often used for disinformation purposes. Freedom House notes that AI has been employed in at least 16 countries worldwide to defame opponents or influence public discourse. Authoritarian governments are advancing censorship technologies on the Internet by utilising AI-based chatbots.

Online astroturfing — the imitation of grassroots public campaigns organised by governments or organisations sponsored by them — is becoming increasingly widespread. IGovernments in 47 countries tried to manipulate online discussions last year by hiring special commentators for this purpose. This marks a twofold increase compared to a decade ago, the Freedom House report notes. For instance, in Myanmar, thousands of Internet 'soldiers' produce a stream of posts supporting the military junta and attacking its opponents on social media.

Traditional methods of information control also remain widely used: 41 governments around the world (a record high) blocked websites containing information that does not violate freedom of speech standards and international law, according to Freedom House's monitoring. Such restrictions were implemented in the United States and a number of European countries as well. This constitutes yet another key challenge to digital freedoms. In response to disinformation and propaganda attacks sponsored by authoritarian governments, democratic authorities are also increasing control and regulation in the online space, thus contributing to the regression of Internet freedom. Moreover, as Freedom House shows, authorities in less free countries are using instances of freedom limitations in democratic states to justify their own repressive policies, pushing the boundaries of repression even further. This creates a vicious cycle of declining digital freedom.

The experts at Freedom House contend that an over-reliance on self-regulation within the high-tech industry has caused the human rights situation on the Internet to seriously deteriorate. To prevent AI tools from becoming catalysts for digital repression, by facilitating censorship and the spread of disinformation, experts recommend that democratic governments develop stricter standards for the use of such tools, involving not only technical experts but also representatives from civil society.

Governments should avoid direct or indirect bans on social networks and platforms and should employ democratic mechanisms to address violations. Democratic countries should also intensify their efforts to support independent online media, including financial support. The private sector should develop effective methods for labelling AI-generated content and refrain from using automated systems for online content removal.

Governments also need to abandon the practice of disproportionate state surveillance of the Internet, including limiting online surveillance programs. The United States and EU countries should work with other countries to develop common standards in this area. Private companies are advised to implement end-to-end encryption technologies and other robust security protocols into their products, and to resist state requests for access to communication platforms.