Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year as conditions deteriorated in 29 countries and improved in 20 others, according to Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence. The report by Freedom House found that internet freedom in Estonia remained highly protected.
The report also found that Iran suffered the year’s worst score decline as authorities shut down internet services and blocked social media to stifle anti-government protests. In two record highs, people in at least 55 countries faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, and governments in 41 countries blocked websites hosting political, social, and religious speech. Both practices persisted in China, which retained its title as the world’s worst environment for internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year.
Estonia continues to hold the second position worldwide regarding internet freedom after Iceland. Although Estonia remains a front-runner in the index, the report emphasises developments that affect the state of internet freedom.
“Estonia, known for its good level of digital society, ensures the availability of network connection, and the country offers strong protection for users’ rights. The freedom of the digital environment to publish content is not limited, even during crises. Restrictions on online content and channels are related to preventing the spread of hostile propaganda and false information, as well as sanctions against Russian media channels,” is the summary of one of the Estonian reporters, Proud Engineers e-governance expert Hille Hinsberg.
Globally, internet freedom has declined for 13 years in a row. For example, the use of tracking tools and manipulation of online users through false information is constantly incr easing. According to Hinsberg, “governments impose various restrictions on what billions of people can access and share online, whether it’s blocking foreign websites, tracking and collecting personal data, or increasing control over their own country’s technical infrastructure.”
The report also found that while advances in artificial intelligence (AI) benefit society, they have been used to increase the scale and efficiency of digital repression. Governments are leveraging automated systems to strengthen their information controls and hone forms of online censorship. Simultaneously, disinformation distributors have turned to AI tools to fabricate images, audio, and text, further blurring the lines between reality and deception.
The report calls on policymakers and their civic and private-sector partners to gain momentum in protecting overall internet freedom, especially as AI technology augments the forces driving the multiyear decline. An effective defence of internet freedom requires not just developing AI governance systems but also addressing long-standing threats to privacy, free expression, and access to information that have corroded the broader digital environment.
Key findings for Estonia
- Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Estonian Consumer Protection and Technical Supervision Agency (TTJA) has ordered communication companies to block media and online channels related to the Russian state to prevent the spread of war propaganda. Together with the applied sanctions, a total of 51 TV channels and nearly 200 websites have been banned in Estonia.
- Facebook restricted access in Estonia to 163 items that violated EU sanctions on Russian state-controlled media sources between January and June 2022.
- Following parliamentary elections in March 2023, the new coalition government drafted a proposal to implement stronger penalties for hate speech.
Key report findings
- Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year. The environment for human rights online deteriorated in 29 countries, while only 20 countries registered net gains. The largest decline on the report’s 100-point scale occurred in Iran (−5), followed by the Philippines (−4) and then Belarus (−3), Costa Rica (−3), and Nicaragua (−3). For the ninth consecutive year, China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom, a title that Myanmar came close to capturing in this year’s report.
- Attacks on free expression grew more common around the world. In a record 55 of the 70 countries covered by Freedom on the Net, people were imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for expressing their political, social, or religious viewpoints, while people were physically assaulted or killed for their online commentary in 41 countries. The most egregious cases occurred in Myanmar and Iran, whose authoritarian regimes carried out death sentences against people convicted of crimes related to online expression.
- Generative AI threatens to supercharge online disinformation campaigns. Governments in at least 47 countries deployed commentators to manipulate online discussions in their favour during the coverage period, double the number from a decade ago. Meanwhile, AI-based tools that can fabricate text, audio, and imagery have quickly grown more sophisticated, accessible, and easy to use, spurring a concerning escalation of the associated disinformation tactics. Over the past year, the new technology was utilised in at least 16 countries to sow doubt, smear opponents, or influence public debate.
- AI has allowed governments to enhance and refine their online censorship. The world’s most technically advanced authoritarian governments have responded to innovations in AI chatbot technology, attempting to ensure that the applications comply with or strengthen their censorship systems. Legal frameworks in at least 22 countries mandate that digital platforms deploy machine learning to remove disfavoured political, social, and religious speech. AI, however, has not completely displaced older methods of information control. Governments in a record 41 countries blocked websites with content that should be protected under free expression standards within international human rights law.
- To protect internet freedom, democracy’s supporters must adapt the lessons learned from past internet policy challenges and apply them to AI. Democracies’ overreliance on self-regulation by private companies has left people’s rights exposed to a variety of threats in the digital age, and a shrinking of resources in the tech sector could exacerbate the deficiency. To protect the free and open internet, democratic policymakers—working side by side with civil society experts worldwide—should establish strong, human rights–based standards for both state and non-state actors that develop or deploy AI tools, including robust transparency and independent oversight.
The report identifies steps that policymakers, regulators, and tech companies can take to foster internet freedom. Click here to read the full report and policy recommendations.
Freedom on the Net is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere. The project assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of the world’s internet users. This report, the 13th in its series, covered developments between June 2022 and May 2023. More than 85 analysts and advisers contributed to this year’s edition, using a standard methodology to determine each country’s internet freedom score on a 100-point scale, with 21 separate indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The Estonian report can be found here.
Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organisation that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilise global action, and support democracy’s defenders.