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New study finds internet freedom is rapidly declining worldwide

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Internet freedom has declined for the 11th consecutive year globally, according to an annual report released this week.

The study from Washington-based democracy watchdog organization Freedom House analyzed 70 countries that account for 88 percent of internet users worldwide and measured indicators such as accessibility and content. Both a lack of internet regulation and excessive restraints to online material contributed to this year’s decline, the group said.

In the United States, internet freedom declined for the fifth consecutive year, with Freedom House saying “its laissez-faire approach to the tech industry created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance.” Without proper oversight, misinformation was able to flourish and “proliferate,” even influencing public perception and acceptance of the country’s 2020 presidential election, the report said.

Overall, the U.S. ranked 12th in internet freedom. Iceland was ranked No. 1 for the third consecutive year, with the report citing its easy accessibility, few content limitations and preservation of users’ rights.

In some countries, authoritarian governments infringed on freedom of expression and even allowed surveillance of users, sometimes leading to their arrest for speaking out about the government, identifying with certain religions and acknowledging social and political unrest, the report said

Among countries with the worst internet freedom were Myanmar, Belarus and Uganda. China was ranked the worst country for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row.

China in recent years has tightened “its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations,” the report said. Citizens increasingly face criminal and legal punishment for criticizing the government; identifying with specific religions, such as the Uighur Muslims; and holding jobs in journalism, among other perceived infractions, according to Freedom House.

In China, discussion on COVID-19 and its origins was repeatedly censored and those who speak out are often subject to legal repercussions and imprisonment, the report said. In the U.S., misinformation about the coronavirus has prompted some tech companies to crack down on conspiracy theories pertaining to the origin of the virus and the reliability of vaccinations.