Protocol | 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."

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