Myanmar saw a massive decline in Internet freedom after a February military coup, the Freedom on the Net report said, headlining a year that saw a global erosion in digital rights. File Photo by Xiao Long/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Myanmar saw its Internet freedom plummet in the wake of a military coup, a report released Tuesday by U.S. think tank Freedom House said, headlining a year that saw an erosion of digital rights around the world.
The 2021 Freedom on the Net report found a global decline in Internet freedom for the 11th consecutive year, as governments censored and arrested users for online speech and weakened data and privacy protections.
Myanmar's overall score dropped by 14 points on the report's scale of 100, marking the most severe decline ever documented.
"As part of its attempt to crush dissent and maintain power, the military junta shut down Internet service, blocked social media platforms and websites, seized control of the telecommunications infrastructure and ramped up intrusive surveillance," the report said.
The Southeast Asian state, which remains embroiled in a violent internal conflict after its military coup in February, fell to the third-lowest position in a ranking of 70 countries, ahead of only Iran and China in a bleak year for online freedom.
"Free expression is under unprecedented strain around the world," the report said. "In 56 countries, a record 80% of those covered by Freedom on the Net, people were arrested or convicted for their online speech."
The report found that at least 20 countries shut off the Internet at some point during the year, while users in 41 countries faced physical attacks as retribution for online activities, another record high.
Among the year's disturbing trends was rising government use of spyware and extraction technology developed by private companies such as Israel's NSO Group.
"A booming commercial market for surveillance technology has given governments more capacity than ever before to flout the rule of law and monitor private communications at their discretion," the report said.
After Myanmar, Belarus and Uganda saw the next-largest drops in their rankings as both countries cut off digital access and arrested online critics during election seasons.
Belarusian incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory in a fraudulent August 2020 election and followed up with a brutal campaign of repression against pro-democracy protesters and online journalists and activists.
In Uganda, longtime President Yoweri Museveni's government shut down the Internet, flooded social media with misinformation and harassed journalists amid a January 2020 election that opponents have called rigged.
However, it was an increasingly authoritarian China that remained "the world's worst abuser of Internet freedom," the report said, with Beijing imposing "profoundly oppressive" restrictions on digital users.
Over the past year, online journalists and citizens were sentenced to long prison terms for criticizing the government or simply sharing news stories, while information on topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic was heavily censored. China has also tightened its controls over the country's tech giants in a move that consolidates even more power in Beijing's hands.
On the opposite side of the ledger, Iceland was ranked as the best environment for Internet freedom for the third year in a row, scoring 96 out of 100 points for its near-universal connectivity, minimal restrictions and strong rights protections.
Estonia came in second, while Costa Rica, included in the report for the first time in 2021, ranked third as one of the first countries in the world to recognize Internet access as a fundamental right.
Taiwan was another new entry this year and ranked fifth due to a "vibrant online landscape" that is supported by an independent judiciary and affordable access.
The United States landed at 12th place following a decline for the fifth year in a row, thanks in a part to the growing proliferation of false, misleading and manipulated information online. The report also cited the enhanced online surveillance of racial justice protesters and the secret collection of phone and email records by the Justice Department during a leak investigation.
Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new regulations on tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter over the past year, the report noted.
In some cases, the rules were meant to rein in the unchecked power of the tech giants. More frequently, however, countries such as India and Turkey exploited new laws to remove online content critical of the government and access user data, the report said.