Internet freedom in 'global decline,' report finds

Fall in online freedom in US noted as 'especially troubling' in study that charts uptick in arrests, surveillance

Internet freedom in countries around the world has declined sharply in the past year despite a pushback from activists that successfully blocked some governments’ repressive laws, according to a new report.

The study, by advocacy group Freedom House, looked at online trends in 60 countries, evaluating each nation them based on obstacles to access, limits to content and violations of user rights. It found that in 35 of the countries monitored, governments had expanded their legal and technical surveillance powers in regards to citizen's online activities.

“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,” the authors of the report concluded.

Of the countries included in the research, Iceland came top in terms of giving its citizens the highest level of freedom. China, Cuba and Iran were listed as the most restrictive for a second consecutive year. The report noted that declines in online freedom in three democracies – Brazil, India and the United States – were “especially troubling”.

Revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have ignited a global debate about the U.S. government's domestic surveillance activities, and the report says the changes in U.S. online freedom are on a "significant" negative trajectory.

Despite a 5-point decline in its score as a result of its controversial domestic spying, the U.S. still made it to fourth in Freedom House’s list.

A growing fear of social media being used to organize national protests led many governments to pass laws restricting freedom of expression online, the report notes. Since May 2012, 24 countries have adopted some form of legislation restricting internet freedom. Bangladesh imposed a prison sentence of 14 years on a group of bloggers for writing posts criticizing Islam.

At least 10 people were arrested in Bahrain for "insulting the king on Twitter," an 18-year-old in Morocco was sentenced to 18 months in prison for "attacking the nation's sacred values" over a Facebook post that allegedly ridiculed the king, and a woman in India was arrested for "liking" a friends Facebook status.

“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.

The ratings are determined based on three categories: obstacles to access such as government efforts to block specific technology or applications, or infrastructural or economic barriers, limits on content through filtering and blocking websites, or other types of censorship, and violations of user rights. Other factors such as diversity of online news media and repercussions for online activities are also factored in.

But pushback from activists has been successful in deterring some of the negative laws. Activists in 11 countries have successfully preventing laws restricting online freedom through a combination of pressure from advocates, lawyers, businesses, politicians and the international community, the report says.

Activists were successfully able to overturn the Cybercrime Prevention Act in the Philippines, blocked a law in Kyrgyzstan and added a constitutional right to freedom of access to the internet in Mexico, though without specifics on how the right will be protected.

This is the third consecutive year internet freedom has declined, according to Freedom House. But even with the decline, the report says increases in activism globally could yield positive future developments. 

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