The 2016 Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report highlights a decline in Internet freedom around the world for the sixth consecutive year
The report which focuses on communication apps under pressure points to governments increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram which can spread information quickly and securely as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information particularly during anti-government protests.
Two-thirds of all internet users (67 percent) were reported to live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship. Social media users were also highlighted to face unprecedented penalties as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
The report highlights that the increased controls show the importance of social media and online communication for advancing political freedom and social justice. Authorities in several countries have resorted to shutting down all internet access at politically contentious times, solely to prevent users from disseminating information through social media and communication apps, with untold social, commercial, and humanitarian consequences. This is particularly significant as the tools at the centre of the current crackdown have been widely used to hold governments accountable and facilitate uncensored conversations. Some communication apps face restrictions due to their encryption features which make it extremely difficult for authorities to obtain user data, even for the legitimate purposes of law enforcement and national security. Online voice and video calling apps like Skype have also come under pressure for more mundane reasons. They are now restricted in several countries to protect the revenue of national telecommunications firms as users were turning to the new services instead of making calls through fixed-line or mobile telephony.
Another important trend highlighted in the report is that security measures threaten free speech and privacy as online activism reaches new heights. While a number of governments have passed new laws that limit privacy and authorize broad surveillance in an effort to boost their national security and law enforcement powers in both democratic and nondemocratic countries, the internet remained a key tool in the fight for better governance, human rights, and transparency. In over two-thirds of the countries in this study, internet-based activism has led to some sort of tangible outcome, from the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism.
Nigeria was rated partly free, attaining an overall score of 34 over 100 where 0=Most Free and 100=Less Free. The Report states that Nigeria has 47 percent internet penetration and pointed out key developments determining Nigeria’s score within the period of June 2015 and May 2016 to include
• the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill 2015 which threatened to restrict social media but was withdrawn in May 2016 following significant digital activism
• the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill 2016 which was drafted by civil society organizations to codify internet freedom protections which passed its second reading in the House of Representatives
• bloggers and online journalists who were arrested for their online activities, many under the May 2015 cybercrime law.
Nigeria was described by the report as having a vibrant, savvy, and growing internet user population, enabled by a strong and innovative technology sector. Compared to the environment for traditional news media in Nigeria, online media is relatively free from restrictions, with no blocking or filtering of online content reported during the coverage period.
The report, country profiles, methodology and graphics are available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016.