The closure of Myanmar marks a grim year for internet freedom

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Paris (AFP)

Internet users in a record number of countries were arrested and physically assaulted for their posts last year, according to a Tuesday report that paints a bleak picture of digital freedoms in 2021.

The annual Freedom on the Net report states that the Internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Belarus have proven to be particularly low points as online rights have declined for the eleventh consecutive year worldwide.

The survey, compiled by the US think tank Freedom House, gives countries a score of 100 for levels of citizen internet freedom, including the extent to which they have restrictions on the content they can access.

Other factors include whether pro-government trolls try to manipulate online debates.

“This year, users in 41 countries faced physical attacks in retaliation for their online activities,” the report said, a “record high” since the persecution began 11 years ago.

Examples include a Bangladeshi student who was hospitalized after being beaten for alleged “anti-government activity” on social media and a Mexican journalist who was murdered after posting a Facebook video showing a gang committed the murder was accused.

The report also found that in 56 of the 70 countries covered by the report, people were arrested or convicted for their online activities – a record 80 percent.

These included two Egyptian influencers arrested in June for sharing TikTok videos encouraging women to pursue careers on social media platforms.

– Internet outages –

Myanmar was heavily criticized in the report after a military junta took power in February, shutting the internet, blocking social media and forcing tech companies to disclose personal information.

Similarly, internet shutdowns were used to cut communications before the Uganda elections in January and after the controversial elections in Belarus in August last year.

In total, between June 2020 and May 2021, the period covered by the survey, at least 20 countries blocked people’s internet access.

But it wasn’t all bad news, as the Gambia was lauded among countries for continuing its trend towards greater online freedom since the fall of dictator Yahya Jammeh in 2017.

Iceland tops the list, followed by Estonia and Costa Rica, the first country in the world to declare internet access a human right.

– China’s worst culprit –

At the other end of the spectrum, China has been cited as the world’s worst abuse of internet freedoms, imposing heavy prison sentences on online dissidents.

There were bright spots, however: the report found that the Clubhouse audio app provided an “unprecedented space for users to discuss sensitive issues with people outside of mainland China” until Beijing blocked it in February 2021.

The researchers around the world accused governments of using the regulation of technology companies for repressive purposes.

“In the controversial battle between states and technology companies, Internet users’ rights have become the main victims,” ​​said the researchers.

Numerous governments are pursuing laws that curb the tremendous power of tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook – some of which are a legitimate attempt to prevent monopoly behavior, the report said.

But it called on nations like India and Turkey to enact laws directing social media platforms to remove content that is considered offensive or that undermines public order, often in “vaguely defined” terms.

Legislation forcing tech giants to store local data on local servers, ostensibly in the name of “sovereignty,” is also on the rise – and prone to abuse by authoritarian governments, the report warned.

According to a draft law in Vietnam, for example, authorities can access personal data of individuals under “vaguely defined pretexts in connection with national security and public order”.

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