Policy

The battle between Big Tech and governments is threatening human rights around the world

Some 48 countries introduced laws to regulate tech last year. But researchers say many of those laws are just attempts at censorship and surveillance.

An illustration of a computer screen being bricked up.

In its latest report, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said, "We really see free expression and privacy as under unprecedented strain."

Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Governments around the world are seizing on widespread frustrations with Big Tech as justification for a spate of increasingly restrictive laws governing online speech, a new report finds, a trend that researchers say puts both free expression and the fate of tech companies' overseas employees at risk.

Over the last year alone, some 48 countries worldwide introduced — and in some cases, passed — laws to regulate tech companies, according to the latest report by Freedom House, a nonprofit that publishes an annual survey on internet freedoms in 70 countries. While those laws have often been passed in the name of promoting competition, protecting people's data and moderating offensive content, the report's authors say that, in many cases, these laws are merely thinly veiled attempts to force companies into censorship and surveillance.

"This year, we've seen a ramp up, for lack of a better term, of the techlash," said Allie Funk, a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House. "[Governments] can use the language of digital sovereignty, cyber sovereignty, national security, public health, COVID-19 to go after speech they don't like and personal data they'd like to access."

For the 11th straight year, Freedom House found internet freedom in decline around the world, with 30 countries, including the United States, seeing more restrictive environments for human rights online and just 18 seeing the situation improve. China ranked last for the seventh year in a row. Freedom House assesses internet freedom based on surveys with 80 analysts worldwide, covering everything from government censorship and internet shutdowns to how people are punished or targeted for online expression and what surveillance techniques governments deploy.

In its latest report, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said, "We really see free expression and privacy as under unprecedented strain."

The report points to several recently enacted laws concerning content takedowns. In Turkey, large platforms have to remove "offensive" posts within 48 hours or risk fines and other forms of punishment. In Russia, authorities can now block platforms that restrict Russian-owned news outlets. And in India, tech companies face new requirements for responding to law enforcement requests and deploying AI for content moderation. But the law also requires companies' local chief compliance officers to obey court or government-ordered content takedowns or risk prison time. These types of requirements, Funk said, "can incentivize countries to censor that content because they fear for the safety of their local employees."

"In the high-stakes battle between governments and tech companies, human rights are the main casualties," Funk said.

Indeed, just last week, Google and Apple agreed to remove an election-related app linked to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny from their app stores in Russia. According to the Associated Press, Google in particular was responding to threats of criminal prosecution by the Kremlin.

While many of these government actions have targeted the tech industry, the Freedom House researchers also found alarming trends with regard to how governments are targeting their own people. Some 45 countries are deploying some kind of spyware to surveil their own people, according to the report.

The survey also yielded a number of disturbing stories about individuals who have been arrested or attacked for various benign forms of online expression. In Egypt, two female influencers were recently sentenced to prison over their TikTok videos. One had posted a video encouraging her female followers to become influencers. The other posted a video of herself dancing and lip-syncing.

While the United States' standing in the Freedom House ranking fell to 12th place in 2020, it is still one of the countries that the organization categorizes as "free" compared to the rest of the world. Now, the report's authors say, the tech companies that are based in the U.S. need to assess whether their platforms are actually helping promote free expression or enabling authoritarian regimes. "U.S. firms are going to need to take a hard look at whether they should be operating in these repressive environments," Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy at Freedom House, said. "Companies are going to have to weigh reputational damage and the human rights risks that come from complying with repressive government requests over their business interests."

A MESSAGE FROM ALIBABA

www.protocol.com

This year, China will become the first country where ecommerce sales will outpace brick-and-mortar transactions. U.S. businesses are using Alibaba's platforms to sell to 900 million digitally savvy consumers in China and untap new opportunities for long-term growth.

LEARN MORE

Entertainment

Inside Amazon’s free video strategy

Amazon has been doubling down on original content for Freevee, its ad-supported video service, which has seen a lot of growth thanks to a deep integration with other Amazon properties.

Freevee’s investment into original programming like 'Bosch: Legacy' has increased by 70%.

Photo: Tyler Golden/Amazon Freevee

Amazon’s streaming efforts have long been all about Prime Video. So the company caught pundits by surprise when, in early 2019, it launched a stand-alone ad-supported streaming service called IMDb Freedive, with Techcrunch calling the move “a bit odd.”

Nearly four years and two rebrandings later, Amazon’s ad-supported video efforts appear to be flourishing. Viewership of the service grew by 138% from 2020 to 2021, according to Amazon. The company declined to share any updated performance data on the service, which is now called Freevee, but a spokesperson told Protocol the performance of originals in particular “exceeded expectations,” leading Amazon to increase investments into original content by 70% year-over-year.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Wall Street is warming up to crypto

Secure, well-regulated technology infrastructure could draw more large banks to crypto.

Technology infrastructure for crypto has begun to mature.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Despite a downturn in crypto markets, more large institutional investors are seeking to invest in crypto.

One factor holding them back is a lack of infrastructure for large institutions compared to what exists in the traditional, regulated capital markets.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Policy

How I decided to go all-in on a federal contract — before assignment

Amanda Renteria knew Code for America could help facilitate access to expanded child tax credits. She also knew there was no guarantee her proof of concept would convince others — but tried anyway.

Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria explained how it's helped people claim the Child Tax Credit.

Photo: Code for America

Click banner image for more How I decided series

After the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, the U.S. government expanded child tax credits to provide relief for American families during the pandemic. The legislation allowed some families to nearly double their tax benefits per child, which was especially critical for low-income families, who disproportionately bore the financial brunt of the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Climate

This carbon capture startup wants to clean up the worst polluters

The founder and CEO of point-source carbon capture company Carbon Clean discusses what the startup has learned, the future of carbon capture technology, as well as the role of companies like his in battling the climate crisis.

Carbon Clean CEO Aniruddha Sharma told Protocol that fossil fuels are necessary, at least in the near term, to lift the living standards of those who don’t have access to cars and electricity.

Photo: Carbon Clean

Carbon capture and storage has taken on increasing importance as companies with stubborn emissions look for new ways to meet their net zero goals. For hard-to-abate industries like cement and steel production, it’s one of the few options that exist to help them get there.

Yet it’s proven incredibly challenging to scale the technology, which captures carbon pollution at the source. U.K.-based company Carbon Clean is leading the charge to bring down costs. This year, it raised a $150 million series C round, which the startup said is the largest-ever funding round for a point-source carbon capture company.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins