Freedom House: Internet Freedom Declined in Georgia but the Country Ranks Free

News | INTERNET AND INNOVATIONS | Article 9 October 2023

On October 4, 2023, Freedom House released the report Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence, according to which global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year as conditions deteriorated in 29 countries. The report found that Internet freedom also declined in Georgia by 2 points compared to 2022, but the country still ranks Free. In 2023, Georgia obtained a score of 76 out of 100.


The report highlighted several key developments and major reasons for score decline for Georgia:


 - The recent report revealed that the country’s telecommunications regulator ordered ISPs to block 480 websites, primarily because they violated copyright law, over a five-year period, even though the government has not provided any clear guidelines on the procedure for website blocking. In addition, neither the ComCom, ISPs, nor state bodies proactively publish statistical data on website blocking. It is noteworthy that these observations were made based on IDFI’s report on Blocked Websites in Georgia: Legal and Practical Analysis


 - A May 2023 Meta report established a connection between the Strategic Communications Department of the Government Administration of Georgia and inauthentic Facebook and Instagram accounts that promoted government-friendly talking points.


 - In July 2022, an individual was briefly detained for using foul language regarding police officers in a Facebook post. 


 - As a positive development, no significant cyberattacks against Georgian state infrastructure or media outlets were reported during the coverage period. 


According to the report, Georgian citizens face some infrastructural obstacles to accessing the internet, however, internet access grows gradually. Based on the data of the National Statistics Office, about 89 percent of households enjoyed access to the internet. However, there is a digital divide between big cities and rural areas, as well as age groups. Another challenge is the quality and speed of internet service. Testing performed by the company Ookla in May 2023 demonstrated that the median download speed for a fixed internet connection was 25.5 megabits per second (Mbps). While the median download speed for a mobile internet connection amounted to 31.6 Mbps.


Freedom House report also touches upon the issue of the distribution of internet users among several Internet service providers (ISPs). It is argued that the ICT market is dominated by a handful of large companies. Two private ISPs control more than three-fourths of the fixed broadband market, while the mobile Internet market is also dominated by three main providers. As a new development, in July 2022, the Communications Commission (ComCom), the telecommunications regulator, allowed Starlink to offer services in Georgia, though those services did not commence within the coverage period. 


Regarding the level of internet freedoms in the country, the report argues that Georgian usually enjoy the freedom to express themselves online. However, a handful of cases of legal repercussions for online activities have sparked concerns in recent years. As an illustration, the report mentions several cases: 


 - an individual was fined with 2,000-lari ($732) for cursing Tbilisi mayor and the police over traffic management in a TikTok video;


 - an individual was held in pretrial detention for 48 hours and later fined with 2,500 lari ($914) for a Facebook post allegedly using foul language to offend police officers.


In terms of restrictions on the internet and digital content, the report refers to the changes to the Law on Broadcasting made at the end of 2022, which among other novelties introduced regulations on video-sharing platforms. Following criticism from local and international organizations based on concerns that the changes could have restricted freedom of expression, controversial amendments were modified in June 2023.  


The use of attempts of online content manipulation from the pro-government and other domestic political actors, especially during demonstrations, electoral campaigns, and political crises were regarded as one of the challenges for the country. As report argues, this tendency has worsened further during the coverage period, especially after the EU’s June 2022 refusal to grant candidate status to Georgia. Most importantly, during the coverage period, Meta removed dozens of Facebook accounts, pages, groups, and Instagram accounts associated with the Strategic Communications Department of the Government Administration of Georgia. These accounts and pages were found to be using deceptive practices to promote a pro-government narrative and to criticize political opposition. According to the report, the Georgian audience was also a target of Russian information campaigns on the issues such as Covid pandemic, vaccination, etc.


Online platforms, especially Facebook, are actively used to organize demonstrations on various issues. Among other examples, the report mentions several days of street protests held against the controversial “foreign agents” bills, requiring foreign-funded non-governmental and media organizations to be registered as “agents of foreign influence”. Facebook and TikTok were effectively used to organize protests and mobilize people. As a result of the protests, the ruling party withdrew both bills. 


In the context of digital rights, it is noted that although there are legal guarantees in this regard, the lack of independence of the judiciary is the main obstacle to the country's democratic consolidation.


Evaluation of each country includes a detailed narrative report and a numerical score based on three categories: an obstacle to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The 2023 report covers the period between June 2022 and May 2023.


Global Tendencies


The report found that Iran suffered the year’s worst score decline as authorities shut down internet services and blocked social media to stifle antigovernment protests. In two record highs, people in at least 55 countries faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, and governments in 41 countries blocked websites hosting political, social, and religious speech. Both practices persisted in China, which retained its title as the world’s worst environment for internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year. 


The 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. Simultaneously, 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 policymakers and their civic and private-sector partners to gain momentum in protecting overall internet freedom, especially as AI technology augments the forces driving the multiyear decline. 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 detailed report is available here.



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