Tracing apps, website blocking, and Internet shutdowns: During the Covid-19 crisis digital rights are under threat. Once in place, state measures to control Covid-19 risk being here to stay.
Covid-19 tracing apps may help to contain infections, but involve the risk of greater surveillance worldwide.
Increased opportunities for e-learning, effortless social distancing via videoconferencing, unprecedented data access in realtime: With regard to the Covid-19-response, celebrations of the Internet are reminiscent of the techno-optimism two decades ago. But a couple of months into the current pandemic, government responses have turned out to be more and more problematic, and even counterproductive in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
While recent years already saw an increased use of digital measures by governments to assert power over citizens and control information flows, Covid-19 might speed up this development. In the rush to respond to Covid-19 related public health and misinformation challenges, concerns grow that this misuse of power is a trend that goes beyond authoritarian regimes.
Digital surveillance on the rise
In many places, tracing apps that help track infections are a crucial part of fighting the pandemic. However, often they are overly intrusive and lack privacy by design. Data are not always collected anonymously, for instance when surveilling the movement of citizens. In some places, private data of infected persons have been made public. This is in part due to a lack of meaningful privacy or data protection laws in countries across the globe.
Also, experts fear that social scoring systems, such as one already implemented in China, are about to get further legitimization during the crisis. So far, these systems track people and score them in parts of their daily life, such as their financial standing and their attention to regulations like traffic rules. For example, a low score might lead to restrictions for citizens, such as the ability to book train tickets. These systems might be used to restrict people’s movements based on health data, possibly leading to stigmatization and discrimination against citizens with underlying health conditions.
Fearing an open debate on how to tackle the health crisis, many governments are trying to control information on the actual situation in their countries. Alarmingly, some have resorted to blocking websites or entire online services, risking leaving the population without adequate information on how to react to the health threat in a meaningful way. In parts of Pakistan and Myanmar, for example, Internet shutdowns continue amid the crisis, despite calls from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to lift the restrictions.
In Myanmar, the government has also directed Internet Service Providers to block certain websites, among them leading national news websites as well as news sites for ethnic minorities. Without independent information in the country’s different languages, critical information on Covid-19 might not reach everyone, potentially hampering disease containment.
In a number of countries, publishing misinformation about Covid-19 is now a crime. In Namibia, for example, part of the emergency regulations of the government includes severe punishments of up to six months in jail for publishing false or misleading information about Covid-19.
But it remains unclear who decides what information is true or false. The rushed enactment of new laws and the application of existing cybersecurity laws has serious consequences. Fear of sharing information that the government thinks is false could lead to self-censorship among citizens, as well as among journalists and activists.
A woman looks at a drone, used by Malaysian police to remind citizens to stay at home and to control their movements.
At the same time, people’s demand for Covid-19 related news appears unlimited. In the United States, more than half of news items accessed on Facebook were reports on the coronavirus pandemic. Social media have stepped up their efforts to monitor the content on their platforms, expanded collaborations with fact-checkers, and directed large chunks of their audiences to sites with official health information.
But nonetheless, the companies have been accused of spreading false information on the virus outbreak and thereby contributing to the infodemic. The scale of the phenomenon appears to be vast. Facebook declared it had placed 40 million warnings next to posts and Youtube claimed to have removed thousands of pieces of misinformation. To gauge whether this is an apt response, however, more transparency by the companies would be needed.
Are restrictions going to stay?
With governments using a global health emergency for a clampdown on digital rights, the measures risk staying intact after the pandemic, as many measures lack sunset clauses. This has sinister implications for citizens’ ability to participate digitally: marginalized groups are the ones who are hit hardest by those measures – it is the people without internet access, the people who lack the necessary literacy to judge if information is true or false, and those who don’t find information in their local language. In times of lockdown and social distancing, digital participation has become essential to social participation and is a prerequisite for exercising the rights of freedom of expression and access to information. Boosting efforts to increase citizens’ media and information literacy is key to a resilient civil society able to stand up for human rights.
It is also becoming evident that rising digital authoritarianism can only be tackled with strong media organizations. It is therefore mandatory not only to strengthen the viability of news media organizations, but also to strengthen journalists’ digital skills to protect themselves and to report on the effects of increased surveillance and censorship, among other things. The media development community needs to step up efforts to advocate for the protection of digital rights around the world. Journalists and citizens alike need to stay vigilant in their fight to protect access to information and secure freedom of expression online.
Author: Lena Nitsche