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AI Accelerates Internet Freedom Decline, Report Finds

WASHINGTON — Artificial intelligence is contributing to the decline of global internet freedom, but more traditional means of repression are to blame as well, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report, which found that global internet freedom has declined for the 13th year in a row.

“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.”

Of the 70 countries studied in the report — which account for 88% of the world’s internet user population — people faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online in a record 55 countries, mirroring global declines in democracy.

Released on Wednesday, the report determined that China has the world’s worst environment for internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year. But Myanmar, still reeling from a military coup 2 ½ years ago, came in a close second. Iran, meanwhile, experienced the largest decline in internet freedom since last year.

AI has been grabbing headlines since the company OpenAI launched its generative AI chatbot ChatGPT nearly a year ago. Since then, rapid advances in generative AI have accelerated the challenges facing an internet that has been under threat for years.

“While AI has a lot of these really exciting uses for society, for medicine, its uptake is really increasing the scale and the efficiency of digital repression. And you see that with surveillance, censorship and disinformation,” Funk told VOA.

The hope was that chatbots would mirror the promise of social media from a decade ago by allowing people to circumvent state-controlled information and access uncensored material. Instead, “more governments are going to be interested in controlling chatbots and their output,” Funk said.

Some governments are blocking access to chatbots, controlling their outputs to reinforce state narratives, and forcing companies to use AI to remove content from platforms at a rate that humans can’t match.

Another way governments can use AI chatbots to embed censorship is by directly controlling the training data that the chatbots use.

“China’s really pioneering this approach,” Funk said.

China’s generative AI chatbots such as Baidu’s Ernie Bot and Alibaba’s Tongyi Qianwen are required to follow strict content controls and ensure the “truth, accuracy, objectivity and diversity” of the training data, as defined by the government. That means when it comes to sensitive issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tiananmen Square, these chatbots either repeat state propaganda or don’t answer.

This manipulation of AI chatbots in China is taking place against a backdrop of broader repression on the internet.

“The Chinese people live under a system of censorship and surveillance that is more extreme than anywhere else in the world,” said Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.

That system is characterized by journalists and critics being jailed and criticism being erased from the internet.

In response to a request for comment, the spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington denied that China’s internet environment is repressive.

“China’s Internet is free, open and orderly,” the spokesperson said. “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.”

From Cambodia to Turkey, elections continued to be a flashpoint for digital repression over the past year, as incumbent leaders sought to control the flow of information to sway the ballots in their favor, Vesteinsson said.

“These tactics are emerging in countries across the democratic spectrum,” he said. It’s a trend that will be particularly concerning for 2024, which will witness major elections in India, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States.

Nobel laureate Maria Ressa has cautioned that the world will know whether democracy “lives or dies” by the end of 2024.

Particularly ahead of these consequential elections, more regulation and transparency are needed from AI companies to mitigate potential harms, Funk said.

The report paints a grim picture of the poor state of internet freedom, but it’s not all bad news.

To Funk, a major positive development over the past year has been the significant movement to reduce the use of spyware. In March, for instance, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to limit government agencies from using commercial spyware that could threaten national security or harm human rights.

Vesteinsson finds hope in the way that technologists around the world are mobilizing to push back against censorship and surveillance.

Chinese people also “have demonstrated inspiring resilience” against government repression, Vesteinsson added, pointing to the protests in late 2022 against China’s strict zero-COVID policy.

“This mobilization triggered a relatively rare policy reversal at the nationwide level,” he said. “Even in this profoundly oppressive environment, people are still finding these avenues to express themselves and agitate for change.”

Source : VOA News