Internet freedom continues to wane worldwide under pressure from attacks on informed democratic debate and notions of privacy, with "a cohort of countries...moving toward digital authoritarianism," U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House has warned.
As social media and other online content foster "echo chambers and pull at the social fabric" of countries, the group says, the survival of democracy technology is at risk and "companies, governments, and civil society must work together to find real solutions to the problems of social-media manipulation and abusive data collection."
The 12 months to May 2018 marked the eighth straight year of decline in "global Internet freedom," author Adrian Shahbaz says in the annual Freedom On The Net report.
Authoritarian regimes are consolidating their control over information under the pretext of fighting "fake news," the report says, comparing it to use in the past of "terrorism" to quell dissent.
"Deliberately falsified or misleading content is a genuine problem, but some governments are using it as a pretext to consolidate their control over information," it adds.
The study assesses Internet freedom in 65 countries representing 87 percent of Internet users worldwide, saying 26 of them suffered declines compared to improvements in 19 of them. In almost half the cases where there were declines, the report ties the slippage to elections.
At least 17 states approved or proposed legislation to restrict online media during that period while citing the threat from "fake news" or online manipulation, it says.
Freedom House groups countries into three categories: free, partly free, or not free.
Estonia and Iceland are ranked at the top of the "free" category, while Iran and China are at the bottom of the "not free" group.
"This year has proved that the Internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships," Shahbaz, Freedom House's research director for technology and democracy, says.
Armenia Now 'Free'
The report says Armenia and Uzbekistan are among the countries where Internet freedom has improved, with Armenia upgrading from "partly free" to "free" after "citizens successfully used social-media platforms, communication apps, and live-streaming services to bring about political change in the country's Velvet Revolution in April."
Armenia thus joins another Caucasus country, Georgia, in the "free" category. The report says that Armenia's case demonstrates that "digital activism fuels political, economic, and social change: The Internet continues to serve as a tool for democratic change."
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who took over following the death of Islam Karimov in 2016, has taken steps to open that country to the outside world, Freedom House says.
But despite some improvement in Internet freedom, Uzbekistan remains in the "not free" category," together with places like Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Iran, while Kyrgyzstan is rated as "partly free."
"Governments in Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Iran, and Russia all took steps to silence independent voices, essentially arguing that only the state can be trusted to separate truth from fiction," the report says, adding that both Russia and Iran sought to block secure messaging app Telegram, which is used to circumvent heavily policed social-media environments in those countries.
Russia blocked Telegram in April, citing the company's refusal to comply with laws that require tech companies to make encrypted data accessible to the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Less than a year earlier, Moscow imposed restrictions on virtual private networks (VPNs) in an effort to block users from accessing banned sites hosted abroad.
'Fake News' Is Today's Terrorism
Authoritarian leaders have also targeted entire media outlets under the pretense of fighting "fake news," Freedom House says.
It cites Kazakhstan, where media portals Ratel and Forbes.kz faced criminal charges for disseminating "false information" after a former minister who is currently a businessman, Zeinolla Kakimzhanov, filed a complaint over stories that accused him of involvement in corruption.
Among other former Soviet states, Ukraine remains in the "partly free" category but is singled out as having suffered among the "largest five-year declines," together with Turkey and Venezuela.
Amid its ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists and an information war with the Kremlin, the report says, Ukraine blocked several widely used Russian technological platforms on national-security grounds in 2017 and "social-media users faced jail time for nonviolent speech under measures outlawing 'calls for extremism or separatism.'"
The parts of Ukraine outside of Kyiv's control "struggled with connectivity, while journalists faced technical attacks and physical violence on both sides of the conflict," according to Freedom House.
The group urges governments worldwide to ensure all web-related legislation and practices are in line with international laws and standards on human rights and to enact strong laws to protect personal data.
Private companies should be compelled to disclose how they use customer data in nontechnical language and to notify customers in a timely fashion if their information is compromised, the report says, in order to avoid situations such as when social-media giant Facebook "exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation."
The report also recommends that policymakers ensure that human rights assessments -- including the rights to privacy and free expression -- are taken into account when new artificial-intelligence technologies are implemented.
Sanctions such as the freezing of assets should be imposed on entities "that knowingly provide surveillance systems used for repressive crackdowns," the study recommends, citing the Global Magnitsky Act adopted in the United States.
The Magnitsky Act, originally passed in 2012, imposed visa and asset bans and asset freezes on Russians thought to have been involved in the death of whistle-blowing accountant Magnitsky and was expanded in 2016 to apply more globally.