A new report claims, surprise, social media isn’t really that free. Instead, it’s full of bad faith actors manipulating elections and government officials surveilling users.
The report, 2019 Freedom on the Net, comes from “independent watchdog organization” Freedom House. And after reading the whole thing (PDF), that still feels like it’s underplaying the growing tire fire that is social media.
While the ongoing efforts to interfere with elections are a huge concern, the breadth of surveillance is just as disturbing. According to the report, 40 of 65 countries it studied (about 62 percent) “have instituted advanced social media surveillance programs.”
In terms of internet freedom, China was ranked as the least free country. Russia and Egypt were also ranked as “not free.” In total, “89 percent of internet users or nearly 3 billion people” fall under some sort of surveillance program, an absolutely staggering number.
And how they’re doing it is just as staggering. For instance, the report notes that in Iran, there’s a “42,000-strong army of volunteers who monitor online speech.” And China’s Communist Party has a similar system of recruits leafing through data and flagging “problematic content.” Meanwhile, Chinese firm Semptian boasts that its Aegis surveillance system helps it monitor over 200 million people in China.
Though the United States is listed as “free” of internet censorship, the report makes clear that the U.S. is hardly innocent. The report mentions Israeli cybersecurity company Cellebrite, who recently agreed to a new deal with ICE valued at between $30-35 million. Cellebrite’s tools enable users to easily hack phones and grab all sorts of data.
And other countries are sending officials to the U.S. to learn how to monitor social media.
The report says that “Philippine officials traveled to North Carolina for training by US Army personnel on developing a new social media monitoring unit.” And Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a government-backed “anti-terrorism” unit that is largely known for massive human rights violations including torture and “extrajudicial killings,” got the OK to travel to the United States in April 2019 to learn how to use “Location Based Social Network Monitoring System Software.”
The study also lays out, crucially, how these governments are leveraging data collected by all this surveillance and —spoiler alert— it’s not good! According to the report, “47 of the 65 countries assessed featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech.”
And, again, it’s not just repressive regimes that are doing this. Even “free” countries like the UK and U.S. surveilled activists, including an instance in which ICE used “social media in New York City to gather information on groups protesting the administration’s immigration and gun-control policies.”
The report is dense but very much worth a read to better understand just how widespread these practices are. Just don’t expect to feel very good about internet freedom when you’re done.