Press release

Freedom on the Net 2016: Silencing the messenger - Communication apps under pressure

Internet freedom around the world declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2016 as more governments aggressively targeted social media and communication apps.


Internet freedom around the world declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2016 as more governments aggressively targeted social media and communication apps than ever before, according to the Freedom on the Net 2016 report released today by Freedom House.  

“Popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but governments are now increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram,” said Sanja Kelly, director for Freedom on the Net. “Messaging apps are able to spread information quickly and securely—and some governments find this threatening.”

Freedom on the Net 2016 assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 88 percent of internet users worldwide. This report primarily focuses on developments that occurred between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, with some more recent events included in parts of the analysis.

Two thirds of all internet users—67 percent—live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family was subject to censorship.

Governments in 24 countries impeded access to social media and communication tools, up from 15 in the previous year, the study found. Authoritarian countries most frequently blocked access to these tools during political protests.

Some countries, including democracies, particularly targeted apps with strong privacy and security features as a perceived threat to national security. WhatsApp faced restrictions in 12 of the 65 countries analyzed, more than any other app.

“Although the blocking of these tools affects everyone, it has an especially harmful impact on human rights defenders, journalists, and marginalized communities who often depend on these apps to bypass government surveillance,” said Kelly.

Separately, voice and video calling apps like Skype came under pressure in a number of countries, where governments sought to protect the revenue of national telecommunications firms as users turned to online apps for cheap, or free, calling and messaging.

Internet or mobile phone networks were temporarily shut down in 15 countries, as authorities became more likely to employ this disproportionate tactic in reaction to local events.

For the second consecutive year, China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Iran. An amendment to Chinese criminal law added seven-year prison terms for spreading rumors on social media (a charge often used to imprison political activists). Some users in China belonging to minority religious groups were imprisoned for watching religious videos on mobile phones.

Key Findings

  • Social media users face unprecedented penalties: Authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2013. Prison sentences imposed in some countries exceeded ten years. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.  Jailing of internet users led to a significant chilling effect in many countries under study,” said Kelly. “When authorities sentence users to long prison terms for simply criticizing government policies online, almost everyone becomes much more reluctant to post anything that could get them in similar trouble.”
  • Governments censor more diverse content: Digital petitions or calls for protests were censored in more countries than before, as were the views of political opposition groups and the LGBTI community. Forty-seven percent of internet users live in countries where alleged insults to religion can lead to censorship or arrest.
  • Censorship of images intensified: Image-sharing platforms were blocked, and world leaders took strong action when their photos were mocked on social media. In Egypt, a photo depicting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears resulted in a three-year prison term for the 22-year-old student who posted it on Facebook.  “When faced with humorous memes and cartoons of themselves, some world leaders are thin-skinned and lash out” said Kelly. “Instead of enjoying a good laugh, they try to remove the images and imprison anyone posting them online.”
  • Security measures threaten free speech and privacy: Governments in democratic and nondemocratic countries passed laws that limit privacy and authorize broad surveillance, launching debates about the extent to which governments should have backdoor access to encrypted communications. Fourteen countries approved new national security laws or policies that could significantly limit internet freedom.
  • Online activism reaches new heights: In two-thirds of the countries under study, internet-based activism led to a tangible outcome. Internet freedom activists in Nigeria helped thwart a bill that would have limited social media activity, while a WhatsApp group in Syria helped save innocent lives by warning civilians of impending air raids.

Since June 2015, 34 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net saw internet freedom deteriorate. Notable declines were documented in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya. Internet freedom improved in Sri Lanka and Zambia for the second year running after new governments relaxed restrictions. South Africa registered an improvement after activists successful used digital tools to promote societal change. The United States improved slightly, reflecting congressional passage of the USA Freedom Act, which puts some limits on the collection of telecommunications metadata.

Turkey and Brazil were downgraded in their internet freedom status. Social media blocks and prosecutions of users for criticizing the authorities or religion drove Turkey from Partly Free to Not Free, a trend reinforced after the failed July 2016 coup. Brazil moved from Free to Partly Free after at least two bloggers were killed and courts temporary blocked WhatsApp for failing to provide user data.

To view the summary of findings, see the report.

To download a high resolution map of internet freedom, click here.