Global internet freedom fell for the thirteenth straight year between 2022 and 2023, and AI isn’t making things better, according to a new report from the non-profit Freedom House.
The annual Freedom on the Net Report blamed AI for making repression and censorship on the open web worse. It said the new technology had been weaponized by governments in 16 countries “to sow doubt, smear opponents, or influence public debate.”
“It’s unsurprising that global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year this year,” said Allie Funk, the report’s co-author.
“Advances in AI from the past year are really deepening this crisis for internet freedom.”
Governments stifle free speech using AI
For the report, Freedom House analyzed 70 countries, which account for 88% of the world’s internet user population. It found that people faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online in a record 55 countries, showing the global decline in democracy.
People were physically assaulted or killed for making comments online, it said, with the most serious cases occurring in Myanmar and Iran. The report concluded that China has had the world’s worst environment for Internet freedom for the ninth year in a row.
Myanmar, still smarting from a military coup a few years ago, came in second. Meanwhile, Iran reported the largest decline in online liberties since 2022. Conditions also worsened in the Philippines after outgoing President Duterte blocked access to news sites critical of his rule.
Since the launch of OpenAI’s viral chatbot ChatGPT in November last year, the generative AI industry has grown at breakneck speed, but with disastrous outcomes for online freedoms. Freedom House says AI has become a tool for disinformation, censorship, and 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.
It added that in several countries, including the United States and Europe, governments have created legal frameworks that “mandate or incentivize digital platforms to deploy machine learning to remove disfavored political, social, and religious speech.”
China says ‘internet is free, open, orderly’
Generative AI has often been framed as a tool for resisting state censorship and surveillance, similar to Bitcoin or the early versions of social media. But “more governments are going to be interested in controlling chatbots and their output,” said Allie Funk, the report’s co-author.
As the VOA reported, Funk said China is “pioneering” a potentially dangerous approach where the central government uses chatbots to “embed censorship” by controlling the data that is used to train the artificially intelligent chatbots.
China’s chatbots, such as Baidu’s Ernie and Alibaba’s Tongyi Qianwen, are required to follow the Chinese Communist Party’s strict censorship rules to ensure “truth, accuracy, objectivity, and diversity” of the training data.
As MetaNews previously reported, content produced by AI systems in China is required to reflect “socialist core values” and avoid information that undermines “state power.” Freedom House senior research analyst for tech and democracy, Kian Vesteinsson, told VOA:
“The Chinese people live under a system of censorship and surveillance that is more extreme than anywhere else in the world.”
China has a long history of censoring the Internet. Its often-sweeping censorship rules have hounded global technology giants such as Google and Facebook out of the country. Chinese authorities have since banned ChatGPT, but it continues to flourish underground.
A spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, U.S., denied the country’s internet environment was repressive. “China’s Internet is free, open, and orderly,” said the spokesperson, per the VOA report.
“It is legitimate for China, as a sovereign state, to manage the Internet in accordance with the law so as to safeguard the just and lawful rights and interests of citizens and companies,” the person added.