The internet was once described as the final tool for the universal democratization of information. Many claimed in the 1990s that there would be no need for gatekeepers, the big men and women in crowded newsrooms who exerted so much power they decided what got published and what did not, and what the people read and what they did not. With the advent of the internet, many thought everyone would be free, for the first time, to speak their mind without governments or newsrooms’ limitations. The internet, many argued, had brought final freedom to the world.
But what was once a liberating technology for our planet has been turned into a tool for surveillance and authoritarianism, including in Sub-Saharan Africa by elected officials who spend millions of dollars to tract their citizens, harvest troves of data and control what they say and think.
A new report by Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2019, has concluded that ‘internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism, which have spread rapidly around the globe”.
According to the report, “repressive regimes, elected incumbents with authoritarian ambitions, and unscrupulous partisan operatives have exploited the unregulated spaces of social media platforms, converting them into instruments for political distortion and societal control. While social media have at times served as a level playing field for civic discussion, they are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms”.
“Moreover, a startling variety of governments are deploying advanced tools to identify and monitor users on an immense scale. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019”.
The declined affected several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, South Africa and Uganda.
African governments are increasingly turning to social media to harvest information from citizens to identify perceived threats and often to silence opposition.
The report warns that social media surveillance threatens civil rights activism on digital platforms.
“This often includes using artificial intelligence, and in many cases, security agencies are automating their mass surveillance of social media,” Isabel Linzer, an expert at Freedom House on internet freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, told DW in an interview. “We have seen this in several sub-Saharan Africa countries, such as Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria and Uganda.”
It tracks improvements and declines in internet freedom conditions each year. The countries included in the study were selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types.
The authors of the report described “Freedom on the Net” as “a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users”.
In-depth reports on each country can be found at freedomonthenet.org.
You can read the report on African countries included in the report here.