Georgia’s score of freedom on the net increased to 77 (on a scale of 0-100) by one point, retaining its place among the “free” countries, according to September 22 report released by Freedom House, the U.S.-based rights watchdog.
The Freedom House said the increase was due to no reported arrests linked to people’s online activities. But the watchdog highlighted some shortcomings, including criticism against the Georgian Communications Commission (GNCC) over the lack of transparency and accountability, slow progress in expanding internet infrastructure and online harassment of women politicians.
“Georgia holds regular and competitive elections, and its democratic trajectory showed signs of improvement during the period surrounding a change in government in 2012–13,” the report said, adding: “However, progress has stagnated in recent years. Oligarchic actors hold outsized influence over policy and political choices, and the rule of law continues to be stymied by political interests.”
The report, covering June 1, 2020 – May 31, 2021 period, is divided into three parts, describing the situation in the countries in terms of obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, which are then divided into subcategories with individual scoring that are summed up in the overall score.
Obstacles to Access
Georgia’s score on obstacles to internet access remains at 19 of 25. The report said that internet access has continued to grow during the coverage period, and that it is generally affordable. It noted that there is “virtually no gender gap” among Georgians who use the internet regularly, but highlighted a divide in terms of age and geography.
The report highlighted that competition between internet service providers is minimal, noting MagtiCom and Silknet control more than three-fourths of the fixed broadband market, with 49.2% and 31.2% of market share, respectively. The report said the market concentration has not significantly affected pricing and service, however. Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, three providers dominate the mobile service market – Silknet, MagtiCom and Veon Georgia.
The watchdog also took note of GNCC, the state regulator of telecommunications, receiving the authority to appoint “special managers” to companies, and exercising this power against Caucasus Online. It also cited a Venice Commission opinion on the amended communications legislation that said the power to appoint the managers could lead to “far reaching consequences for the right to property and media freedom, as well as to the right of a fair trial.”
Limits on Content
Georgia retained its score at 31 out of 35 on limits on content on the internet, with the watchdog noting users do not face restrictions in accessing websites, uploading or downloading content, hosting their own websites and communicating via online platforms.
The report said that Government requests to remove online content are rare, adding that transparency reports from Facebook, Google, and Twitter show the authorities did not issue any takedown requests during the coverage period.
It noted that there are few explicit restrictions on the internet and online content, but noted the state regulator, GNCC, has faced criticism from civil society for enacting “vague and broad” legislation on regulating media “in the best interest of minors.” Freedom House said there were concerns the GNCC’s new authority to define “offensive vocabulary,” might allow the regulator to limit the editorial independence of media outlets.
According to the report, “pro-government and other domestic political actors have attempted to manipulate online content to influence public opinion, particularly during political crises.”
However, Freedom House noted that Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program for Georgia, launched in September 2020, significantly decreased these types of activities on social media. It also took note of Facebook taking down networks affiliated with the Kremlin-friendly Alliance of Patriots party and alt-right Alt-Info outlet in October 2020.
Violations of User Rights
Georgia’s score in the category increased by 1, to 27 out of 40, because “there were no reported arrests for online activities protected under international human rights standards during the coverage period.”
According to Freedom House, while digital rights are nominally protected by Georgian legislation, “there are doubts that the judiciary, whose independence is limited, can consistently enforce these protections.” It added that “a lack of judicial independence is regarded as a major hindrance to Georgia’s democratic consolidation.”
The watchdog said that “state surveillance of internet activities threatens Georgians’ privacy rights. The government has reportedly monitored opposition figures, independent journalists, and exiles from other countries living in Georgia.”
Freedom House stated new surveillance regulations allow the Operative Technical Agency under the State Security Service to compel internet service providers to cooperate with its investigations and provide statistical data on user activities, being also entitled to fine the providers for noncompliance.
It also noted that cyberattacks have become a significant issue in Georgia, citing September 2020 attack against the Healthy Ministry, October 2020 attack against the Georgian Public Broadcaster and February 2021 attack against the Interior Ministry.
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