Repressive regimes around the world are nationalizing the internet and isolating people
China, Iran, Russia and Cambodia, all authoritarian states, are deeply invested in ensuring the isolation of their people from the global internet.
They’re among the top countries trying to centralize state control over domestic internet infrastructure, according to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom on the Net report, which studied internet freedom in 70 countries, making up 89% of the world’s internet users.
Released on October 18, the report found that global internet freedom has declined for the twelfth year in a row. Rising internet fragmentation, with countries ringfencing their national internet services from the global internet, is one of the main reasons.
To some degree the internet has always been fragmented along national borders, says Kian Vesteinsson, one of the report’s co-authors.
“But we found that internet fragmentation is accelerating at a rapid pace,” Vesteinsson told me. “Particularly over the past year, more governments than ever before are trying to isolate internet users within their country from those based abroad.”
There are three main causes of internet fragmentation: restrictions on the flow of news and information, barriers to cross-border transfers of user data, and — most concerningly — centralized state control over internet infrastructure.
Restrictions on the flow of news are relatively common, with authorities in 47 of the 70 countries Freedom House studied limiting users’ access to information outside their country. Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Russia and Singapore were among the countries that exercised strict limitations on what information users could access from abroad.
“In most cases, entrenched and aspiring authoritarian leaders sought to contain online dissent by preventing residents from reaching information sources based in countries with a greater level of media freedom,” the report said.
But centralizing state control over internet infrastructure is a lot less common because it’s much harder to accomplish. The report found that only seven countries — Bahrain, Cambodia, China, Iran, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine — out of 70 had tried to centralize control over domestic internet infrastructure.
Isolation is the point of that centralized control, and China is the best at it. China, according to the Freedom House report, had the world’s worst internet freedom environment for the eighth year in a row. Russia too is seeking to centralize control, claiming it can separate the Russian-language “Runet” from global connections. While in Cambodia, the government plans to route all international and domestic internet traffic through a central choke point.
“The centralization of infrastructure is really, deeply concerning,” Vesteinsson told me. “But we’re not seeing it in as many countries because it’s difficult and expensive to implement.”
“It’s a really sophisticated system of technical control,” he added. “Internet fragmentation has really serious consequences for human rights, particularly for people who are living under authoritarian regimes or in backsliding democracies.”
IN GLOBAL NEWS
Could killer robots be coming soon to Oakland, California? This is not a sentence I expected to write about the city I live in, but here we are. According to recent reporting from The Intercept, the Oakland Police Department is pushing for a policy that would arm robots with guns that could be used to kill people under “emergency circumstances” — for example, a mass shooting that cops aren’t able to get to. While the plan so far has been put on pause, officials within the department told The Intercept that they intend to pursue it in the future — a decision that, if approved, could set a terrifying precedent for the future of policing in Oakland and cities across the U.S.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, the fallout over one of the largest hacks in the country’s history continues. The data breach, which was carried out by the self-described “hacktivist” group Guacamaya, led to the publication of millions of sensitive documents and emails from Mexico’s military. The damning documents, their authenticity confirmed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, exposed the links between drug cartels and high-ranking government officials, as well as the military’s use of Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists and activists. But one detail that caught my eye that has received little attention from the English-language press: the revelation that the military also compiled dossiers and spied on feminist organizations, which were described by officials as a “security threat” comparable to “subversive groups and guerrillas.”
Another blow to burner phones. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr recently signed a new law requiring all cell phone users in the country to register their SIM cards with telecommunications companies. Under the law, anyone in the country seeking a cell phone will need to present a government-issued ID during their SIM card registration — a move proponents say will help fight scams that use unregistered phone numbers. Opponents are concerned, however, that the registration law could become a de-facto spying tool for the government, putting investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and activists at risk of persistent surveillance. We heard similar concerns about Mexico’s now-defunct mandatory biometric SIM registry, which we covered in 2021.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- This investigation from the BBC found that TikTok is taking up to 70% of the proceeds of donations made to Syrian refugees begging for donations on the platform’s livestreams, which brought in up to $1,000 an hour.
- Access Now’s sobering new report about the rise of digital dictatorship across Eastern Europe and Central Asia — a trend spanning everything from internet shutdowns in Azerbaijan and Armenia to targeted surveillance in Belarus and Russia.
- In the last few years, content moderation has become another flash point in America’s endless and exhausting culture war. But it wasn’t always that way. This longread from The Washington Post explains how the topic turned partisan in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
This newsletter is curated by Coda’s staff reporter Erica Hellerstein. Rayan El Amine contributed to this edition.