Free Internet jeopardized, Freedom House study says

Cyberattacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over Internet infrastructure are among the diverse and growing threats to internet freedom, according to “Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media,” a new study released today by Freedom House.

These encroachments on Internet freedom come at a time of explosive growth in the number of Internet users worldwide, which has doubled over the past five years. Governments are responding to the increased influence of the new medium by seeking to control online activity, restricting the free flow of information, and otherwise infringing on the rights of users, the study said.

“These detailed findings clearly show that Internet freedom cannot be taken for granted,” said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “Nondemocratic regimes are devoting more attention and resources to censorship and other forms of interference with online expression.”

“Freedom on the Net 2011,” which identifies key trends in internet freedom in 37 countries, follows a pilot edition that was released in 2009. “Freedom on the Net” evaluates each country based on barriers to access, limitations on content, and violations of users’ rights.

The study found that Estonia had the greatest degree of Internet freedom among the countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran received the lowest score in the analysis. Eleven other countries received a ranking of Not Free, including Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. A total of 9 of the 15 countries in the original pilot study registered declines over the past two years. Conditions in at least half of the newly added countries similarly indicated a negative trajectory. Crackdowns on bloggers, increased censorship, and targeted cyberattacks often coincided with broader political turmoil, including controversial elections.

Countries at Risk:As part of its analysis, Freedom House identified a number of important countries that are seen as particularly vulnerable to deterioration in the coming 12 months: Jordan, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

In response to the growing popularity of internet-based applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, many governments have started targeting the new platforms as part of their censorship strategies. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities consistently or temporarily imposed total bans on these services or their equivalents.

Access to the internet in the United States remains open and free compared with the rest of the world, the study said. Users face very few restrictions on their ability to access and publish content online, and courts have consistently held that prohibitions against government regulation of speech apply to material published on the Internet. However, the United States lags behind many major industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and connection speeds, and the government’s surveillance powers are cause for some concern.

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