How Internet Freedom Continues to Slide
CNN Global Public Square
by Sanja Kelly
Project Director, Freedom on the Net
Revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in June about the U.S. government’s secret surveillance activities grabbed headlines across the globe. But while the world’s attention has been focused on the United States, prompting important discussions about the legitimacy and legality of such measures, disconcerting efforts to both monitor and censor internet activity have been taking place in other parts of the world with increased frequency and sophistication.
According to a new Freedom House study Freedom on the Net 2013, which tracks internet censorship in 60 countries, internet freedom around the globe has been on decline for three years straight.
Iran, China, and Cuba were found to be the most restrictive countries when it comes to internet freedom. In Iran, the government utilized more advanced methods for filtering of online content – in effect blocking thousands of websites – while routinely imprisoning and torturing those who post dissenting views. In Cuba, the authorities continued to require a special permit for any Cuban wishing to access the global internet, with the permits typically given only to party officials and those working in approved professions. And China led the way in expanding its elaborate technological apparatus for censorship, while increasing arrests of users to deter free expression online.
Unlike in previous years, during which policy deterioration was typically seen in authoritarian countries, three democracies – India, the U.S., and Brazil – also experienced steep declines since May 2012. In India, declines resulted due to excessive blocking of websites during rioting in northeastern states and an uptick in arrests of ordinary users for posts on social media. In the U.S., the decline was in large part due to reports of extensive NSA surveillance. And in Brazil, there have been growing restrictions on online speech, particularly in the context of the country’s stringent electoral laws; cases of intermediary liability exemplified by arrest warrants against Google Brazil executives who refused to remove YouTube videos that allegedly defamed mayoral candidates; and increasing violence against bloggers.
The reality is that most countries around the world have enhanced their surveillance powers over the past year. In fact, in 35 out of 60 countries examined, the government has upgraded surveillance capabilities or passed a new law giving it greater monitoring authority since May 2012. This is of particular concern in authoritarian countries where such surveillance is used to track down and arrest human rights activists and dissidents. One such example is from Russia, where the Supreme Court last year upheld the legality of the government’s surveillance of an opposition leader on the grounds that he had participated in antigovernment rallies. And in Sudan, the authorities tracked down and arrested dissidents based on the signal emitted by their cell phones.
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.