Report: Estonia internet freedoms intact even as global decline continues

Estonia is ranked 2nd in the world in internet freedom in 2023, as it was last year.
Estonia is ranked 2nd in the world in internet freedom in 2023, as it was last year. Source: Renee Altrov/Brand Estonia

Internet freedoms in Estonia remain protected even as such freedoms globally have continued to decline over the past 13 years, according to a recently issued report.

The report, titled Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence, was published today, Tuesday, by Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Freedom House.

Overall, internet freedom conditions deteriorated in 29 countries over the past year, while they improved in 20 others states, the Freedom House report says.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the latest challenges relating to internet freedoms, the report adds.

Estonia nonetheless continues to hold second position in the world in terms of internet freedoms, after Iceland (unchanged from last year, and a situation which has been the case in the more distant past also – ed.).

Hille Hinsberg, an e-governance expert at private sector consultancy Proud Engineers, tasked with compiling the Estonian component of the annual report, said: "Estonia, known for its strong level of digital society, ensures the availability of network connection, and the country offers strong protection for users' rights."

"Restrictions on online content and channels are related to preventing the spread of hostile propaganda and false information, in accordance with sanctions against Russian media channels," Hinsberg went on.

Since the beginning of Russia's aggression in Ukraine in February 2022, the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) in Estonia has ordered communication companies to block media and online channels relating to the Russian Federation, with the aim of curbing the spread of pro-Kremlin propaganda.

A total of 51 TV channels and nearly 200 websites have been banned in Estonia as a result – this would include not only media in the Russian language, but also media in other languages such as English, in cases of sites propagating propaganda.

Meanwhile social media giant Facebook has restricted access inside Estonia to 163 items that violated EU sanctions on Russian state-controlled media sources, between January and June 2022, Freedom House says.

Following the Riigikogu elections of March 2023, the ensuing coalition government has also drafted a bill to implement stronger penalties for hate speech, a bill currently being processed at the Riigikogu.

Less encouragingly, internet freedoms worldwide have been declining – for 13 years in a row now, Freedom House reports (the annual report has in fact been issued for 13 years now – ed.).

For example, the use of tracking tools and manipulation of online users through via misleading information or blatant misinformation is constantly on the rise.

"Governments have been imposing various restrictions on what billions of people can access and share online, be it by blocking foreign websites, tracking and collecting personal data, or increasing control over their own country's technical infrastructure," Hille Hinsberg said of developments.

The new report also found that while advances in artificial intelligence (AI) offer benefits for society, they have been used to increase the scale and efficiency of digital repression.

Governments are leveraging automated systems to strengthen their information controls and hone forms of online censorship, the report says.

At the same time, distributors of disinformation have turned to AI tools to fabricate images, audio, and text, further blurring the lines between reality and deception. 

The report calls on stakeholders to gain momentum in protecting overall internet freedom, especially as AI technology augments those forces driving the multi-year decline internet freedoms, the report adds.

An effective defense of internet freedom requires not just developing AI governance systems, but also addressing long-standing threats to privacy, free expression, and access to information that have corroded the broader digital environment, the report finds.

Freedom on the Net 2023 report quick facts:

  • Global internet freedoms declined for the 13th consecutive year.
  • The environment for human rights online deteriorated in 29 countries, while only 20 countries registered net gains.
  • For the ninth consecutive year, China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedoms, a title which Myanmar came close to meeting this year also.
  • A record 55 of the 70 countries covered by Freedom on the Net saw individuals imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for expressing their political, social, or religious viewpoints, while people suffered physical violence or even lost their lives as a result of their online commentary in a total of 41 countries.
  • Governments in at least 47 countries deployed commentators to manipulate online discussions in their favor during the coverage period, double the number from a decade ago.
  • Over the past year, new technology such as AI was utilized in at least 16 countries to sow doubt, smear opponents, or otherwise influence public debate.  
  • Governments in a record 41 countries blocked websites with content which in the understanding of international human rights laws should be protected under free expression.

The full Freedom House 2023 report is here. 

Freedom on the Net is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere. The project assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 88 percent of the world's internet users.

More than 85 analysts and advisers contributed to this year's edition, which covered the period June 2022 to May this year. Each country's internet freedom was given a rating on a 100-point scale.

Estonia's report was prepared at Freedom House's request by Proud Engineers, a private sector firm whose experts work as consultants and advisers on digital change inside and outside Estonia.

Funded primarily by the U.S. State Department, and also from other U.S. state, public and private sector foundations, Freedom House was founded in October 1941, with then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as an honorary co-chair. Its stated aim is to expand and defend freedom globally.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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