A report published by a prominent watchdog group confirms that the Internet in the hands of authoritarian-minded leaders is proving an effective instrument of repression. The report goes on to warn that rapid advances in artificial intelligence threaten to “supercharge” efforts by illiberal state and non-state actors to curtail Internet freedom and spread disinformation.
The annual Freedom House survey, titled Freedom on the Net 2023, paints a bleak picture for digital rights across Eurasia. Worldwide, Internet freedom declined for the 13th straight year, according to the report.
Kazakhstan was the lone country in either Central Asia or the Caucasus to see an improvement in its digital freedom score from the previous year; the rest regressed. Yet even with its slight improvement, Kazakhstan’s Internet atmosphere was still deemed “not free.” Out of the nine Eurasian countries surveyed by Freedom House, only Georgia and Armenia had digital environments considered “free.” Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, meanwhile, had “partially free” digital spaces.
In reviewing developments in 2022, Freedom House found instances in every Eurasian state in which Internet users faced persecution, and, in some cases, criminal prosecution for expressing their views online.
Digital censorship and harassment came in a variety of forms. A common practice was the use of indiscriminate blackouts as a means of stifling dissent. A prominent example occurred in Uzbekistan, where anti-government protests in the country’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan prompted authorities to introduce a weeks-long Internet cut-off. The result – an intended one – was an information firewall around the restive region.
Kazakhstan similarly pulled the plug on the Internet for almost one week amid a spasm of political violence in January 2022, as did Tajikistan during a security sweep in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, limited access to social media platforms, in particular TikTok, during a bout of fighting in September 2022 along the country's border with Armenia.
Internet blackouts came with a significant price tag. The January 2022 shutdown in Kazakhstan, for example, cost the country’s economy an estimated $410 million, according to a report published by Top10VPN, a privacy-focused website. Web interruptions in Uzbekistan cost the economy almost $220 million.
The Freedom House report notes that elections are often flashpoints of digital manipulation and censorship. “Ahead of and during electoral periods, many incumbent leaders criminalized broad categories of speech, blocked access to independent news sites, and imposed other controls over the flow of information to sway balloting in their favor,” the report stated. With this in mind, digital developments in Georgia deserve particular scrutiny in the coming months, given that the country will hold a parliamentary election in 2024 in a polarized political environment.
Freedom House highlighted a particularly worrying trend – AI’s ability to enhance digital repression. “The world’s most technically advanced authoritarian governments have responded to innovations in AI chatbot technology, attempting to ensure that the applications comply with or strengthen their censorship systems,” the report said.
AI also stands to act as an “intensifier” of mis- and disinformation, the report said, adding that almost two-thirds of the countries surveyed in the report “deployed commentators to manipulate online discussions in their favor,” double the number of states that engaged in such practices a decade ago. “AI-based tools that can generate text, audio, and imagery have quickly grown more sophisticated, accessible, and easy to use, spurring a concerning escalation of these disinformation tactics,” the report said.
The United States and European Union need to lead in creating a strict and well-framed regulatory framework to defend individual rights from AI encroachment, Freedom House recommended. The watchdog group called on Western governments to create “robust protections against ineffective and unsafe systems, address algorithmic discrimination, require independent audits and human rights–based impact assessments, and mandate increased transparency regarding the design, testing, use, and effects of AI products.”
Freedom House representatives expressed hope that such actions were possible. “The lessons we have collectively learned from the past decade of internet policy discussions – regarding government oversight, the need for robust global civil society engagement, and the problem of overreliance on self-regulation – provide a promising roadmap for this new era,” Allie Funk, one of the report’s co-authors, said in a statement.
However, the proof may be in the report’s scores. The United States’ overall digital freedom score in the report was 76 out of 100 – the same as Georgia’s.
Brawley Benson is a U.S.-based reporter and recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School who writes about Russia and the countries around it. Follow him on X at @BrawleyEric.