Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‘biggest driver’ of global internet freedom decline: report 

Global internet freedom decreased for the 12th consecutive year, driven largely by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a Freedom House report released Tuesday. 

Russia had the sharpest decline of any of the 70 countries assessed in the report — reaching an all-time low in the organization’s 12 years of tracking. The dip came after the country invaded Ukraine in February.

The Kremlin blocked mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as more than 5,000 websites, according to the report.

“The Russian government’s brazen invasion of Ukraine was the biggest driver of a decline in global internet freedom. It’s had a really far reaching impact,” said Kian Vesteinsson, Freedom House’s senior research analyst and co-author of the report.

Russia’s invasion also undermined Ukraine’s internet freedom, he said. Russian troops forced service providers to reroute internet traffic through Russian networks in the spring and summer in an effort that left Ukrainian users without access to social media platforms and international news sites, according to the report. 

“The Russian government is undeniably at fault for the decline of internet freedom in Ukraine,” Vesteinsson said. 

Other countries reported to have sharp downgrades in internet freedom were Myanmar, Sudan and Libya. Overall, people in at least 53 countries faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, according to the report. 

The report measures and scores internet freedom in 70 countries, which account for 89 percent of the world’s internet users, based on their obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The report assessed developments between June 2021 and May 2022. 

The Freedom House report also found that a record number of national governments blocked websites with nonviolent political, social or religious content. 

“There’s always been some degree of fracturing along national borders, but we’re seeing that internet fragmentation is accelerating at a rapid pace. More governments than ever before are trying to isolate internet users in their countries from people based around the world,” Vesteinsson said. 

In the U.S., internet freedom “improved marginally” for the first time in six years, the report found. That uptick was driven by fewer reported cases of targeted surveillance and online harassment during protests compared with the previous year. 

But the report still calls out the lack of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the U.S., a topic that picked up some steam in Congress earlier this year but failed to get a floor vote in either chamber, and the online environment “riddled with” political disinformation and conspiracy theories ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. 

The U.S. wasn’t alone in its uptick in reported internet freedom. A record of 26 countries experienced internet freedom improvements in the past year, based on the report. 

“There’s room for optimism here,” Vesteinsson said. “The key to all of these wins that we observed is effort from civil society. It’s really these nonprofits, media groups, and activists who are at the forefront of pushing other actors to protect human rights online. They played a leading role in raising awareness of these problems. It’s really critical that we build on that momentum and seek to protect internet freedom in the years to come.”