The corona crisis is accelerating the trend towards online censorship and surveillance – this is the central thesis of the US organization Freedom House in its new report on the status of “Internet freedom”. Governments around the world used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict and disregard rights, the authors criticize.
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History shows that techniques and laws introduced in times of crisis are often permanent, said Adrian Shahbaz, co-author of study published on Wednesday. “In retrospect, we will see Covid-19, just like September 11, 2001, as the point when governments gained new, intrusive means of controlling their citizens.”
In its study, Freedom House focuses on three main topics: surveillance, censorship and the disintegration of the Internet into national sub-networks under the heading of “cyber sovereignty”. Overall, the degree of internet freedom determined by Freedom House fell for the tenth year in a row.
Mass surveillance with apps and cell phone data
in the Chapter on monitoring The authors criticize the fact that a high proportion of the worldwide Corona apps can be misused for surveillance. Most developers disregarded data protection requirements, the source texts of most applications are not visible.
The authors cite numerous examples such as the “Aarogya Setu” app, which has been installed around 50 million times in India and sends Bluetooth and GPS data to government servers. Another app called “Jio” was used in India to collect symptom data from millions of citizens and then put them on servers without access protection. In Moscow, citizens would have to send selfies to authorities to prove that they are complying with the quarantine. Singapore has obliged migrants to use contact tracing apps.
Apps from Bahrain and Turkey are mentioned as further negative examples. However, China has taken the most comprehensive and draconian measures. The authors refer to the Estonian app “Hoia” as a positive example of a corona warning system with open source code and a decentralized structure. The German Corona warning app is not mentioned.
However, the apps are just one of many means of surveillance: At least 30 governments – including those of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Korea – are monitoring their population in cooperation with mobile phone providers, according to Freedom House.
Corona censorship with over 2000 keywords
In at least 28 of the 65 countries examined, the governments blocked or censored online content in order to suppress critical reports on Covid-19, it says in the chapter on censorship.
The censors proceeded particularly systematically in China: They defined more than 2000 keywords to filter content related to the pandemic from the Internet. Even harmless questions or observations were suppressed. The media received strict instructions on how to report the virus. But Bangladesh, Egypt, Venezuela, Belarus and other countries have also censored or blocked corona content.
According to Freedom House, journalists or ordinary citizens were arrested or charged in 45 of the 65 countries surveyed for commenting on Covid-19 online. The pretext was often that they had spread false information that could endanger public order.
Internet continues to fragment
Freedom House also sees the trend towards “Splinternet” from national sub-networks as worrying. The authors name China with its “Great Firewall” as a pioneer. Russia, too, recently passed laws to cut the country off from the rest of the internet during a state of emergency. Another example is Iran.
But democracies are also pulling up more and more digital borders, the authors criticize. You refer, among other things, to the action taken by the USA and India against Chinese social media apps, but also to the Privacy Shield ruling of the European Court of Justice. This overturned “one of the largest data sharing agreements”.
Germany scores 80 out of 100 possible points in the new studyjust like the year before. Points are deducted, among other things, due to the NetzDG, which obliges platforms to delete content.