In the high-stakes battle between states and technology companies, the rights of internet users have become the main casualties. A growing number of governments are asserting their authority over tech firms, often forcing the businesses to comply with online censorship and surveillance. These developments have contributed to an unprecedented assault on free expression online, causing global internet freedom to decline for an 11th consecutive year.
Global norms have shifted dramatically toward greater government intervention in the digital sphere. Of the 70 states covered by this report, a total of 48 pursued legal or administrative action against technology companies. While some moves reflected legitimate attempts to mitigate online harms, rein in misuse of data, or end manipulative market practices, many new laws imposed excessively broad censorship and data-collection requirements on the private sector. Users' online activities are now more pervasively moderated and monitored by companies through processes that lack the safeguards featured in democratic governance, such as transparency, judicial oversight, and public accountability.
The drive toward national regulation has emerged partly due to a failure to address online harms through self-regulation. The United States played a leading role in shaping early internet norms around free speech and free markets, but its laissez-faire approach to the tech industry created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance. In the absence of a shared global vision for a free and open internet, governments are adopting their own approaches to policing the digital sphere. Policymakers in many countries have cited a vague need to retake control of the internet from foreign powers, multinational corporations, and in some cases, civil society.
This shift in power from companies to states has come amid a record-breaking crackdown on freedom of expression online. In 56 countries, officials arrested or convicted people for their online speech. Governments suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, most often during times of political turmoil such as protests and elections. As digital repression intensifies and expands to more countries, users understandably lack confidence that government initiatives to regulate the internet will lead to greater protection of their rights.