Broad surveillance, new laws controlling web content, and growing arrests of social-media users drove a worldwide decline in internet freedom in the past year, according to a new study released today by Freedom House. Nonetheless, Freedom on the Net 2013 also found that activists are becoming more effective at raising awareness of emerging threats and, in several cases, have helped forestall new repressive measures. “While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of censorship in many countries, governments are increasingly looking at who is saying what online, and finding ways to punish them,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House. “In some countries, a user can get arrested for simply posting on Facebook or for “liking” a friend’s comment that is critical of the authorities,” she added.
Freedom on the Net 2013, which identifies key trends in internet freedom in 60 countries, evaluates each country based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
An uptick in surveillance was the year’s most significant trend. Even as revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden prompted an important global debate about the U.S. government’s secret surveillance activities, Freedom on the Net 2013 found that 35 of the 60 countries assessed had broadened their technical or legal surveillance powers over the past year. Such monitoring is especially problematic in countries where it is likely to be used for the suppression of political dissent and civic activism. In several authoritarian states, activists reported that their e-mail and other communications were presented to them during interrogations or used as evidence in politicized trials, with repercussions that included imprisonment, torture, and even death.
Many governments, fearing the power of social media to propel nationwide protests, also scrambled to pass laws restricting online expression. Since May 2012, 24 of the 60 countries assessed adopted legislation or directives that threatened internet freedom, with some imposing prison sentences of up to 14 years for certain types of online speech. Overall, 34 out of 60 countries assessed in the report experienced a decline in internet freedom. Notably, Vietnam and Ethiopia continued on a worsening cycle of repression; Venezuela stepped up censorship during presidential elections; and three democracies—India, the United States, and Brazil—saw troubling declines.
Iceland and Estonia topped the list of countries with the greatest degree of internet freedom. While the overall score for the United States declined by 5 points on a 100-point scale, in large part due to the recently revealed surveillance activities, it still earned a spot among the top five countries examined. China, Cuba, and Iran were found to be the most repressive countries in terms of internet freedom for the second consecutive year.
10 MOST COMMONLY USED TYPES OF INTERNET CONTROL Freedom on the Net 2013 documented the 10 most commonly used types of internet control in the 60 countries assessed.< 1. Blocking and filtering: In 29 of the 60 countries evaluated, the authorities blocked certain types of political and social content over the past year. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were the worst offenders, but filtering in democratic countries like South Korea and India has also affected websites of a political nature. Jordan and Russia intensified blocking in the past year.
2. Cyberattacks against regime critics: Opposition figures and activists in at least 31 countries faced politically motivated cyberattacks over the past year. Such attacks are particularly prevalent during politically charged events. For example, in Malaysia and Venezuela the websites of popular independent media were repeatedly subject to DDoS attacks in the run-up to elections.
3. New laws and arrests: In an increasing number of countries, the authorities have passed laws that prohibit certain types of political, religious, or social speech online, or that contain vague restrictions related to national security that are open to abuse. In 28 countries, users were arrested for online content. In addition to political dissidents, a significant number of those detained were ordinary people who posted comments on social media that were critical of the authorities or the dominant religion.
4. Paid progovernment commentators: A total of 22 countries saw paid commentators manipulate online discussions by discrediting government opponents, spreading propaganda, and defending government policies from criticism without acknowledging their affiliation. Spearheaded by China, Bahrain, and Russia, this tactic is increasingly common in countries like Belarus and Malaysia.
5. Physical attacks and murder: At least one person was attacked, beaten, or tortured for online posts in 26 countries, with fatalities in five countries, often in retaliation for the exposure of human rights abuses. Dozens of online journalists were killed in Syria, and several were murdered in Mexico. In Egypt, several Facebook group administrators were abducted and beaten, and security forces targeted citizen journalists during protests.
6. Surveillance: Although some interception of communications may be necessary for fighting crime or combating terrorism, surveillance powers are increasingly abused for political ends. Governments in 35 countries upgraded their technical or legal surveillance powers over the past year.
7. Takedown and deletion requests: Governments or individuals can ask companies to take down illegal content, usually with judicial oversight. But takedown requests that bypass the courts and simply threaten legal action or other reprisals have become an effective censorship tool in numerous countries like Russia and Azerbaijan, where bloggers are threatened with job loss or detention for refusing to delete information.
8. Blocking social media and communications apps: 19 countries completely blocked YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or other ICT apps, either temporarily or permanently, over the past year. Communications services such as Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp were also targeted, either because they are more difficult to monitor or for threatening the revenue of established telecommunications companies.
9. Intermediary liability: In 22 countries, intermediaries—such as internet service providers, hosting services, webmasters, or forum moderators—are held legally liable for content posted by others, giving them a powerful incentive to censor their customers. Companies in China hire whole divisions to monitor and delete tens of millions of messages a year.
10. Throttling or shutting down service: Governments that control the telecommunications infrastructure can cut off or deliberately slow (throttle) internet or mobile access, either regionally or nationwide. Several shutdowns occurred in Syria over the past year, while services in parts of China, India, and Venezuela were temporarily suspended amid political events or social unrest.