People around the world faced further restictions on Internet freedom last year, as governments grew bolder in attempts to monitor and control web information. In its fifth annual "Freedom on the Net" report, Freedom House found goverments expanding online controls "rapidly" in 2013 and early 2014, with the adoption of "new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent."
This is the fourth consecutive year that global Internet freedom has declined. An increase in surveillance, new regulatory controls, and a proliferation of invasive laws all share some of the blame.
"As a result, more people are being arrested for their internet activity than ever before, online media outlets are increasingly pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests for data or deletions," notes Freedom House. Measures criminalizing online defamation were also a "prominent trend".
"Authoritarian and democratic leaders alike believe the internet is ripe for regulation and passed laws that strengthen official powers to police online content," said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net.
For this year's report, Freedom House examined developments in 65 countries between May 2013 and May 2014. Overall, 36 of these countries (55 percent) experienced "a negative trajectory" in terms of online privacy and freedom of speech and information. Twenty-one countries passed new laws increasing online censorship. Arrests for online political communications were documented in 38 countries.
The worst abuses of internet freedom came from the usual suspects: Iran, Syria, and China. But Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine also saw "major deteriorations" in online freedom, and "very few countries registered any gains". The only three countries with notable improvements were India, Brazil, and Belarus.
Laws empowering government agencies to block content without judicial oversight and little or no transparency were especially bad in Turkey, Thailand, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Italy. Russia, Jordan, and Singapore all introduced, updated, or enforced rules requiring journalists and bloggers to register with the government.
The United States scored pretty high on the Internet freedom scale. Freedom House considers a score of zero to 30 to represent a "free" Internet, 31-60 "partly free", and 61-100 not free. Scores were determined by considering a set of "21 questions and nearly 100 accompanying subpoints" surrounding things such as obstacles to access (infrastructural barriers, government blocking of specific apps or technologies), limits on content (filtering and blocking websites, censoring online news media), and violations of user rights (surveillance, legal restrictions on online activity). America received a score of 19, coming in just behind Australia (17), Germany (17), Canada (15), Estonia (8), and Iceland (6), and and just ahead of France (20), Italy (22), Japan (22), Hungary (24), the U.K. (24), and South Africa (26).
In terms of emerging threats to Internet freedom, Freedom House says the three biggest are:
Data localization requirements, which require private companies to maintain data storage centers within a given country. For instance, Russia passed a law in July 2014 that requires Internet companies to store data from Russian citizens on servers in Russia.
Digital threats and harassment of women and LGBT individuals, which "can lead to self-censorship" and significantly inhibit freedom of expression and the ability to freely use certain digital tools. In Egypt, for instance, there were reports of "authorities used the dating application Grindr to entrap and prosecute gay men." In Russia, "vigilante groups used online tools to bait gay men, luring them to in-person encounters where they were physically assaulted and threatened with public exposure."
Malware attacks, which are getting increasingly sophisticated and are employed against government critics and human rights organizations (documented in 32 of the 65 countries examined).
On the bright side, Freedom House found that "pushback by civil society was amplified this year", largely in reaction to the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance revelations. "In select cases, long-running internet freedom campaigns finally garnered the necessary momentum to succeed," it notes. See the full report here.