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 Wednesday 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.