New Report Measures Attempts to Impose, and Evade, Internet Repression

This week, government officials in both Pakistan and Senegal cut public access to the internet in moves clearly meant to crack down on political debate. Pakistan severed connections to limit information coinciding with a general election of questionable credibility while Senegal’s action occurred after the government postponed a presidential vote to the end of the year. The restrictions come amidst global concern about increasing online censorship and surveillance.

Declining Digital Freedom

“Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year,” Allie Funk, Adrian Shahbaz, and Kian Vesteinsson of Freedom House noted in last year’s Freedom on the Net 2023 report. “Ahead of and during electoral periods, many incumbent leaders criminalized broad categories of speech, blocked access to independent news sites, and imposed other controls over the flow of information to sway balloting in their favor,” they added.

Controlling access to information regarding electoral politics is precisely what happened in both the recent incidents in countries where authorities are barely going through the motions of democracy.

“Polls have closed in Pakistan after the authorities suspended mobile calls and data while millions voted for a new government in a controversial election,” report Yvette Tan, Caroline Davies, and Simon Fraser for the BBC. They noted that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, seeks approval for another term in office while the party of his predecessor, Imran Khan, who was jailed last year for corruption, called the internet cut a “cowardly act.”

Meanwhile, “Senegal’s internet service was restored Wednesday, days after the government suspended it following the postponement of this month’s presidential election” and subsequent unrest, according to Deutsche Welle.

“The government’s abrupt shutdown of internet access via mobile data and Walf TV’s broadcasting, along with the revocation of its license, constitutes a blatant assault on the right to freedom of expression and press rights,” commented Samira Daoud of Amnesty International.

Senegal, notably, appears on a list compiled by Techopedia of places where internet searches on virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask users’ identities and provide a measure of anonymity, are soaring.

Measuring Online Repression and Resistance

“In the Western world, many people use VPNs for recreational reasons – whether that’s unlocking geo-restricted content while traveling (a motivating factor for 26% of users), or reducing the effects of throttling to enjoy faster internet speeds,” notes author Rob Binns. “In other countries, however, VPNs aren’t a matter of enjoyment or entertainment: they’re a matter of life and death. In these jurisdictions, the internet freedoms the Western world takes for granted are curtailed or non-existent.”

Based on Google Trend data, nine of the 10 places where “VPN” is most searched have lousy records for respecting individual rights (the exception is St. Helena, a British territory). The countries are: Turkmenistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, China, Syria, Afghanistan, St. Helena, Senegal, and Uganda.

“Senegal saw the biggest increase in VPN demand in 2023, with a spike of more than a staggering 60,000%,” notes the report.

Pakistan does not appear in the report among the top ten. But Techopedia told me the country comes in at number 12, after Cuba. That’s some awful company. While not all the Techopedia entries were included in Freedom House’s report, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, and Pakistan all rank as “not free” (China comes in dead last, followed by Myanmar) while Uganda is ranked as a marginally better “partly free.”

St. Helena, while sharing the U.K.’s “free” status, has a single legal-monopoly ISP, Techopedia notes. The report speculates that VPNs are popular there for maintaining anonymity while accessing technically-illegal competitors, such as Starlink, and to evade rumored surveillance by the island’s government.

“What all the countries in our top 10 have in common is this: they’ve all incited their populations to turn to VPNs as an important – sometimes the only – way to circumvent informational restrictions,” concludes Techopedia of the interest in privacy-protecting tech in so many authoritarian countries.

If Techopedia is correct that interest in VPNs is evidence both of extensive digital repression and of popular efforts to evade such control, it’s apparent that old-fashioned censorship remains a huge concern for internet users. As Freedom House cautioned in its earlier report: “In a record 55 of the 70 countries covered by Freedom on the Net, people faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, while people were physically assaulted or killed for their online commentary in 41 countries.”

That means that traditional threats to freedom of expression and to information access—and the dangers of challenging those threats—remain pressing for much of the world’s population living under authoritarian regimes in what are all-too-often increasingly repressive countries. Multiple measures of human freedom have been found backsliding in recent years when it comes to individual liberty.

“Overall the story is one of stagnation, with the global average score remaining essentially unchanged,” the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2022 mourned last year. “This is a dismal result given that in 2022 the world started to move on from the pandemic-related suppression of individual liberties that persisted through 2020 and 2021.”

Technological Threats—and Countermeasures

This comes as Freedom House warns that high-tech innovations may ease the work of repressive regimes, allowing them to replace armies of snoops and trolls with artificial intelligence.

“AI has allowed governments to enhance and refine their online censorship,” observes Freedom on the Net 2023. “Legal frameworks in at least 21 countries mandate or incentivize digital platforms to deploy machine learning to remove disfavored political, social, and religious speech.”

Of course, VPNs are a technological innovation crafted to thwart surveillance and restrictions. AI-driven surveillance and censorship may well drive the creation of new technologies intended to shield people’s identities and protect individual freedom.

At least, we should hope that tools crafted to protect liberty keep up with the tools of repression. It’s a technological arms race those of us who value freedom can’t afford to lose.

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