Rights watchdog Freedom House said global Internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year in 2023 as attacks on freedom of expression grew more common.
In its annual report on the level of the Internet freedom in the world, published on October 4, the watchdog said that the most serious cases occurred in Iran and Myanmar, where authorities carried out death sentences against people convicted of online expression-related crimes.
In Belarus and Nicaragua, people received “draconian prison terms” for online speech, the report said, adding that this was “a core tactic employed by longtime dictators Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Daniel Ortega in their violent campaigns to stay in power.”
The report, titled Freedom On The Net 2023, covers 70 countries in six regions around the world, ranking the Internet in three groups — free, partially free, and not free.
Iceland, Estonia, and Canada were ranked as most free, with Germany, the United States, Georgia, Armenia, and Serbia also among the top-ranking countries.
China, Myanmar, and Iran were among the countries where the Internet is least free while Russia, Uzbekistan, and Belarus were also among the lowest-ranking countries.
Iran was home to this year’s sharpest decline, the report said, as authorities shut down Internet service, blocked the WhatsApp and Instagram social media apps, and increased surveillance during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year sparked by the death of a young woman — 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — while in police custody.
The report identified artificial intelligence (AI) as a threat for human rights online, saying that it has enabled governments to conduct more precise and subtle forms of online censorship, surveillance and disinformation campaigns.
“The world’s most technically advanced authoritarian governments have responded to innovations in AI chatbot technology, attempting to ensure that the applications comply with or strengthen their censorship systems,” the report said.
But AI-powered moderation may struggle to keep up with a surge of unexpected content and expressions of dissent during times of crisis or protests, the report said, and authoritarian governments continue to use other forms of censorship online.
Russia has established a system to block global social-media platforms, Ukrainian news sites, and domestic sites that contradict the Kremlin’s narratives over its invasion of Ukraine.
Belarus, which has aided Russia’s military aggression, has blocked more than 9,000 websites, including independent news sites.
In its report, Freedom House noted that democratic governments in Europe and the United States also considered or in some cases actually imposed restrictions on access to websites, calling the approach “unproductive.”