10/06/2023, 13.07
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Internet: China, Myanmar and Iran 'champions' of censorship. Risks from artificial intelligence

by John Ai

According to Freedom House's latest report, Beijing, Naypyidaw and Tehran have the 'worst' environment in the world when it comes to internet use. Global freedom has been declining for a decade, but the level of democracy has also worsened in recent years. Artificial intelligence is a new tool in the hands of disinformation and censorship regimes.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - In 2023, global internet freedom continues to decline for the thirteenth consecutive year and some of the most critical data and factors come from the Asian continent. This is what emerges from the latest report by Freedom House, a United States-based NGO, according to which China, Myanmar and Iran are the nations with the "worst conditions" in terms of access and the possibility of movement within the network .

In addition, the study shows a further critical element represented by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which would favor public disinformation and online censorship.

The annual report entitled “Freedom on the Net” examined 70 countries, covering 88% of the world population present on the web. Trends over the last decade show that the percentage of people living in nations without any internet freedom is increasing. In 55 of the 70 states surveyed, people face legal (including criminal) repercussions for their speech or comments online, a record high.

From this perspective, China is in last place in terms of internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year. In terms of repression and censorship, in second to last place just before Beijing we find the Myanmar of the generals who supported the coup that overthrew the democratic government in February 2021, then the Iran of the ayatollahs in third to last place in the world for internet freedom.

China boasts in this unenviable ranking the largest firewall and the most rigid internet surveillance system in the world, as well as having blocked the main social media platforms and Google services.

Furthermore, Beijing is cracking down on web users who use VPNs to bypass censorship. A control and firewall system that is also sought after abroad, so much so that it is exported to other countries such as Russia and the Islamic Republic.

In Myanmar, conditions for internet freedom have worsened since the military coup two and a half years ago. In both Myanmar and Iran, authorities have even carried out death sentences for expressions or articles published online.

According to the report's co-author, Allie Funk, director of Freedom House's Democracy and Technology Research Department, the decline of democracy worldwide is "a major cause" of the collapse of internet freedom globally. Another factor is that China has successfully promoted the concept of "cyber sovereignty" abroad.

The investigation evaluated the entire arsenal of tactics available to censorship, with a comprehensive and analytical methodology. Surveillance, censorship and disinformation are among the main challenges around which artificial intelligence plays an ever-increasing role, whose development in terms of censorship and control has taken on a trend defined by experts as "worrying".

According to the report, this technology will be increasingly used by pro-government officials and analysts and related companies as a tool for propaganda and disinformation.

In this regard, it emerges that AI is becoming increasingly "efficient" in the repression of digital content and is currently used in the main Chinese social networks to automatically remove so-called "politically sensitive" content.

Moreover, Beijing is strengthening control of the content it generates, distinguishing itself as a leader in filtering and blocking the output and information generated by chatbots, ensuring that companies comply with government-defined standards in data formation.

The chatbots developed by Chinese web giants such as Baidu and Alibaba avoid answering questions regarding or relating in various ways to Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, or simply repeat the authorities' propaganda.

A systematic censorship, however denied at an official level as done by the Chinese embassy in Washington which criticizes the report and strongly denies that the online environment in China is "repressive".

Nonetheless, technology also fuels hope for change. Last year, the protests that broke out in China against the "zero-Covid" policy imposed by the government and President Xi Jinping since the beginning of the pandemic had wide resonance, contributing to changing the approach based on mass testing and very harsh lockdowns. People have mobilized thanks to the internet and citizens have demonstrated resistance and resilience.

In 2024, elections are scheduled to take place in some of the most important countries in the global economy and diplomacy: first and foremost in the United States, with the presidential vote, in the European Union, in India and in Taiwan, with the related implications for the balance of power with China and the prospects of conflict.

Within this framework, analysts, experts and activists are looking closely at the internal dynamics with a particular focus on the possible effects of disinformation and fake news artfully spread through the web.

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