U.S. Internet freedom plunges for fourth consecutive year

WASHINGTON – Internet freedom in the United States dropped for the fourth consecutive year amid a global trend of countries using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for silencing digital platforms, according to the Freedom on the Net 2020 report by Freedom House released Wednesday.

Freedom House’s annual assessment of internet freedom surveys 65 countries that account for 87% of the world’s internet users. This year’s report covered developments between June 2019 and May 2020, determining each country’s internet freedom based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

This year’s report revealed a decline in internet freedom around the world for the 10th consecutive year.

The United States registered 76 out of 100, losing one point compared with last year’s score. A surge of surveillance on social media platforms by law enforcement agencies and users targeted for harassment and criminal charges were among the problems, according to the Freedom House’s analysis.

Alongside the United States, twenty-six countries’ scores worsened during the one-year period, including the world’s largest democracy India; 22 countries showed improvement in internet freedom.

For the sixth year in a row, China ranked last with the worst environment for internet freedom. China is accused of exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to thwart criticism of the government, using every internet control apparatus, from automated censorships to digital surveillance. Beijing’s response may have brought the spread of the coronavirus to a halt, but so have the voices of citizens exposing corruption and disinformation, according to the report.

The report also warned of possible misuse of telecommunications and geolocation data in the name of COVID-19 responses. South Korea, for example, has managed to contain the virus thanks largely to nationwide contact tracing. Yet, without strong data-privacy protections and oversight, technological responses may give intrusive powers to governments. With this year’s score of 66, South Korea is in a tie with Colombia and lags behind Kenya when it comes to digital liberty.

Freedom House is a Washington-based watchdog that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights. More than 70 analysts contributed to this year’s report.