The Internet has proven to be a wildly enabling medium, amplifying previously weak voices, enabling commerce across vast distances and allowing ticked-off individuals to poke fingers in the eyes of the powers-that-be. Of course, most politicians would rather preside over poor, quiet subjects than prosperous, loud ones, so governments have been trying to rein-in the online world ever since they realized its implications. They're making headway toward that goal, says the latest report from Freedom House, though pressure from activists, businesses and courts continues to win victories for Internet freedom.
The big developments in the realm of online control-freakery come from efforts to make censorship and suppression less obvious. Says Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net:
“The findings clearly show that threats to internet freedom are becoming more diverse. As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier—but no less dangerous—methods for controlling online conversations,"
Thumping bloggers around the kidneys with lengths of rebar is so ... 2007, don't you think? (Though it continues. See below.)
In compiling Freedom on the Net 2012, Freedom House surveyed how subject to state interference Internet usage is in 47 countries. Since you're dying to know, I'll tell you the United States doesn't come in first freedom-wise — that honor belongs to Estonia. The U.S. comes in second. Depressingly, "Of the 47 countries examined, 20 have experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia registering the greatest declines."
In terms of the nature of the negative developments, the report notes:
- New laws restrict free speech: In 19 of the 47 countries examined, new laws or directives have been passed since January 2011 that either restrict online speech, violate user privacy, or punish individuals who post content deemed objectionable or undesirable.
- Bloggers and ordinary users increasingly face arrest for political speech on the web: In 26 of the 47 countries, including several democratic states, at least one blogger or ICT user was arrested for content posted online or sent via text message.
- Physical attacks against government critics are intensifying: In 19 of the 47 countries assessed, a blogger or internet user was tortured, disappeared, beaten, or brutally assaulted as a result of their online posts. In five countries, an activist or citizen journalist was killed in retribution for posting information that exposed human rights abuses.
- Paid commentators, hijacking attacks are proliferating: The phenomenon of paid pro-government commentators has spread over the past two years from a small set of countries to 14 of the 47 countries examined. Meanwhile, government critics faced politically motivated cyberattacks in 19 of the countries covered.
- Surveillance is increasing, with few checks on abuse: In 12 of the 47 countries examined, a new law or directive disproportionately enhanced surveillance or restricted user anonymity. In authoritarian countries, surveillance often targets government critics, while in middle-performing countries, safeguards for user rights and oversight procedures are lagging far behind governments’ technical capacities and legal powers, leading to abuse.
The use of disinformation may be the most insidious development. Authoritarian officials seem to be realizing that they can't completely cut the flow of information, so they're trying to muddy the waters so that it's more difficult to tell what's true and what's government-sponsored bullshit.
For those of us who grow, let us say, a little frustrated with the political systems under which we suffer, there is a reminder that it could be a lot worse. Online freedom did increase in a few places, and aside from countries in which control slipped due to regime change, "[t]he remaining gains occurred almost exclusively in established democracies, highlighting the crucial importance of broader institutions of democratic governance—such as elected representatives, free civil society, and independent courts—in upholding internet freedom."
The report praises citizen activism, such as when American "civil society and technology companies helped to halt passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which were criticized for their potentially negative effects on free speech."
Freedom on the Net 2012 is both interesting and worthwhile. If there's a serious omission that I would like to see addressed, it's the ongoing development and use of technologies to defeat Internet controls. But the report's authors are less concerned than I am with subverting official controls than they are with detailing those controls and government attitudes toward Internet use. Given the direction policy is moving in many countries, I think the authors of the 2013 edition should consider looking at techniques for asserting liberty online in defiance of the law, if the law refuses to be accommodating.