Freedom House, the U.S. based human rights organisation, released its fifth edition of the Freedom on the Net report in December 2014. This report included detailed country narratives in addition to a one-of-a-kind numerical index covering 65 countries across six geographical regions.
Freedom on the Net is a comprehensive annual study of global Internet freedom. The December 2014 report also included an analytical overview essay and graphics of the key findings and emerging threats to global digital media freedom that occurred during the edition’s coverage period of May 2013 – May 2014. The previous edition, Freedom on the Net 2013, was released on October 3, 2013 and featured analysis of 60 countries between May 2012 and April 2013.
The survey noted how global Internet freedom has consistently declined in the past four years as 36 of the 65 countries assessed this year showed a negative trajectory while the study was being conducted.The report also highlighted how various governments attempted to manipulate the online activity of users by blocking apps, setting limits on contents, filtering sites and blocking them eventually, and snooping.
Freedom House has also attempted to draw attention to the fact that countries rapidly adopted new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent as opposed to the past when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control.
The key findings from the Freedom on the Net 2014 report revealed
- 41 countries either passed or proposed legislation on penalizing legitimate forms of online speech, increasing the government’s power to manipulate content or expand government surveillance capabilities.
- Arrests and detentions were recorded for online communications pertinent to politics and social issues in 38 of the 65 countries notably in the Middle East and North Africa where detentions occurred in 10 out of the 11 countries examined in the region.
- Independent news websites which had previously been among the few uninhibited sources of information in many countries faced a dramatic increase in pressure, based on attacks made against journalists and the governments’ move to license and regulate web platforms.
Freedom House identified three emerging threats that place the rights of internet users at increasing risk:
- Multiplication of data localization requirements by which private companies are required to maintain data storage centres within a given country partly driven by NSA revelations which spurred more governments to bring international web companies under domestic jurisdiction. These measures could expose user data to local law enforcement.
- Women and LGBTI rights are undermined by digital threats and harassment, resulting in self-censorship that inhibits their participation in online culture.
- Cybersecurity is eroding as government critics and human rights organizations are subject to increasingly sophisticated and personalized malware attacks, documented in 32 of the 65 countries examined.
Freedom House however noted that despite overall declines in global internet freedom, pushback by civil society was amplified this year by reactions to the NSA surveillance revelations. Awareness of the threats to fundamental rights also expanded beyond civil society, as ordinary users around the world became more engaged in securing their privacy and freedom of expression online. It also pointed to the fact that in select cases, long-running internet freedom campaigns finally garnered the necessary momentum to succeed.
The assessment of the countries was based on responses to three categories of questions: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Each country had its own report authors and advisors who worked hand in hand with the Freedom House research team. Apart from the scores, each country was also analyzed thoroughly in the report.
The governments of Russia and China have both been placed at the forefront when it comes to licensing and regulating the web.Russian president Vladimir Putin is said to have created new regulations that block webpages that display “anti-government” sentiments and the government has also signed a new law requiring all online sites to store their data in Russia. This has resulted in the Google’s (the second most popular search engine in Russia) move of its engineering office out of the country.
China has also remained a cause of concern for a number of Internet companies based in the West as the country which had already blocked Facebook and Twitter, recently barred access to Gmail. Internet users in China hope that the Internet becomes a permission-free network where people are allowed to conduct their online activities without any restriction and without having to fear government punishment.
Tech experts say that conflict between web users and governments is expected to arise in 2015.
“The Internet is a crucial medium not just for personal communication or news and information, but for political participation and civic engagement. The struggle for Internet freedom is consequently inseparable from the struggle for freedom of every kind,” Freedom House stated.
The report can be found online at https://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2014#.VNDSUGjF-Co