WASHINGTON – This year’s Freedom on the Net report is out and carries a bleak conclusion: Online freedom has declined for the fifth consecutive year.
“Out of 65 countries that we assessed in the past 12 months, 32 have experience overall declines since June 2014,” Sanja Kelly, project director at Freedom House, said at the Google offices for the report release Wednesday.
“While Internet use is on the rise, so too is the censorship and political surveillance,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said.
The top three frequently censored topics were criticism of authorities, reports of conflict and of corruption. The data reveal that there is widespread, ongoing or repeated censorship, in the form of content blocking, content removal and prosecution. The five countries with the worse censorship records are Iran, Russia, China, Turkey and Ethiopia.
“More governments are now pressuring individuals and companies, including American companies, to remove content as opposed to simply blocking or filtering websites,” Schatz said.
Blocking content is no longer effective, Kelly said. This is because Internet users are finding ways to counter state blocking mechanisms. As a result, many governments have not only been passing laws criminalizing different types of speech but have also expanded mass surveillance of online activity.
“In the past year, 14 out of 65 countries in our sample have new surveillance laws,” Kelly said. Looking back into five years of data, half of the 65 countries has in fact introduced such laws at some point.
“For human rights activists and defenders, that loss of privacy can translate very quickly into a loss of physical security. And that’s a human rights issue,” Donahoe said.
Governments are making it harder for users to disguise their personal data, such as location, thus undermining user anonymity. Governments can then monitor online activity of opposition activists and sanction then.
For example, Syrian blogger, journalist and human rights activist Assad Hanna was stabbed in his Istanbul apartment for his criticism of Syria’s ruling regime. He said that the attack could not have been a coincident, especially after receiving multiple threats from political groups.
Kelly also brought up the right to be forgotten as one of the emerging areas in the field of online freedom. The Court of Justice of the European Union, ruling in May 2014, gave individuals the right to request that information that is irrelevant or no longer accurate about them be hidden by search engines.
While this ruling applies to people living in the EU, its application in other countries with notably less transparent and accountable system could cause prejudice to millions. For instance, Russia allows public officials to exercise this right. For Kelly, this means that corrupt officials could wipe out past criminal charges from online searches.
There are now more people living in countries classified as “Not Free” than there are in “Free” countries, Kelly said.
Out of the 3 billion people that are connected to the Internet, 61 percent live in countries where criticism of the government, military or ruling family has been subject to censorship. Nearly half of them live in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for online activities since June 2014. Nearly a third of these 3 billion people live under governments that sometimes disconnected Internet or mobile phone access in the past year.
Despite the bleak figures, the report noted that digital activism has been and remains a vital driver of change around the world, particularly in societies that lack political rights and press freedom.
“People everywhere ought to enjoy freedoms expression, assembly and association, online and offline,” Schatz said.
Reach reporter Kelvin Suddason at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos and links to the graphics: Online-freedom.zip