With Covid-19 cases reaching over 40 million, it has become essential to track those with the virus and ensure that published information is accurate. However, a new study by Freedom House suggests this isn't without risk. Governments, it says, have been using the pandemic to expand their surveillance and silencing regimes under the guise of public health interests.

The research by the digital and human rights watchdog looks at 65 countries across the world, accounting for approximately 87% of the planet's internet users. While some of the freedom-invading initiatives were previously in-progress in countries like China, Freedom House believes they're starting to become more commonplace.

"What we’re seeing right now is the normalization of the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese government has long sought to mainstream," says Adrian Shahbaz, director of democracy at Freedom House.

During the pandemic, he says, at least thirteen countries have been hit by internet shutdowns, while many others strayed drastically from best practices proposed for contract tracing apps by accessing GPS and call data. At least 30 of the countries expanded mass surveillance during the pandemic, utilizing telecoms and tech companies, and in some cases even anti-terrorism systems to track citizens.

On top of that, 45 countries arrested journalists, activists, and regular citizens for online speech offences related to the pandemic. 28 of the 65 censored social media or websites to suppress Coronavirus stats that painted them in a bad light.

"The digital world presents distinct challenges for human rights and democratic governance. State and nonstate actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control."
Allie Funk, Freedom House

At BitLaunch, studies like this help to remind us why we started all this. Regardless of the historic status quo, situations change, and so does what governments do to control them. A decentralized, anonymous system is the only way to ensure freedom of expression remains protected.

A growing trend across the world has been the splintering of internet into a mess of different regulations and standards. As Freedom House notes, governments have been moving towards "cyber sovereignty", with efforts to restrict cross border information flow, particularly during moments of crisis. While more extreme examples exist in repressive regimes, the United States too has participated in this, signalling a lack of trust in the global internet by banning apps like TikTok.

Cyber sovereignty diagram
Source: Freedom of the Net 2020 report, www.freedomhouse.org

We believe in an open, free and shared internet that protects users' rights, and, crucially, puts systems in place to ensure that remains the case. With numerous major tech companies working against the public interest to erode citizens' rights, we think it's important that users have alternatives that represent their ideals.

Thankfully, though internet freedom has been on the decline over the past five years, there may still be hope for the future. Freedom House notes improvements in Sudan, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe, with several courts across the world upholding user's rights to privacy or taking steps to limit surveillance powers.

As some countries seek to control the online narrative, they're acting as a warning for the citizens of others. People are enforcing their right to privacy and freedom of speech while moving to platforms that better represent them. At BitLaunch, we're committed to the continued support of voices that can't find a home through traditional methods.

Want to support our push for a private, open internet? Sign up to BitLaunch today.