Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year, with more governments censoring information of public interest and placing greater demands on the private sector to take down offending content. The goal of these restrictions is usually to protect powerful figures and the official views on religion or morality that may undergird leaders’ popularity.
State authorities have also jailed more users for their online writings, while criminal and terrorist groups have made public examples of those who dared to expose their activities online. This was especially evident in the Middle East, where the public flogging of liberal bloggers, life sentences for online critics, and beheadings of internet-based journalists provided a powerful deterrent to the sort of digital organizing that contributed to the Arab Spring.
In a new trend, many governments have sought to shift the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content, often resorting to direct blocking only when those measures fail. Local companies are especially vulnerable to the whims of law enforcement agencies and a recent proliferation of repressive laws. But large, international companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have faced similar demands due to their significant popularity and reach.
Surveillance has been on the rise globally, despite the uproar that followed the revelation of mass data collection by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013. Several democratic countries, including France and Australia, passed new measures authorizing sweeping surveillance, prompted in part by domestic terrorism concerns and the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Bans on encryption and anonymity tools are becoming more common, with governments seeking access to encryption backdoors that could threaten digital security for everyone. Evidence that governments with poor human rights records are purchasing surveillance and malware technologies from Western companies like Hacking Team has fueled suspicions that these tools are being used to crack down on political dissidents.
Nevertheless, activists, advocacy groups, and journalists have pushed back against deteriorating conditions for global internet freedom. In India, legal petitions against Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act—a restrictive provision that was used to criminalize online speech, particularly on social media—succeeded when the Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional in March 2015. In Argentina, the Supreme Court protected intermediaries from pressure to preemptively censor third-party content. And in the United States, the June 2015 passage of the USA Freedom Act marked an incremental step toward surveillance reform after nearly two years of debate over NSA practices.
Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on a negative trajectory since June 2014.
In more repressive settings where the potential for legislative change is limited, activists have had some success in using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to hold government officials accountable for abuses. In Ethiopia, demands for the release of the Zone 9 bloggers, who were being tried on terrorism charges, garnered global attention under the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, apparently contributing to the release of five of the nine defendants in July 2015. And in Saudi Arabia, the ubiquity of smartphones enabled activists to post documentation of human rights violations online, sparking public outrage and resulting in the dismissal of two government officials.
While the overall trajectory for internet freedom remains negative, the declines over the last year were less precipitous than in the past. The small victories described above are promising signs that the setbacks of recent years can be reversed, and that the fight for a free and open internet will continue even under the harshest conditions.
Tracking the Global Decline
To illuminate the nature of the principal threats in this rapidly changing environment, Freedom House conducted a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the world. This report, the fifth in its series, primarily focuses on developments that occurred between June 2014 and May 2015, although some more recent events were included in individual country narratives. Over 70 researchers, nearly all based in the countries they analyzed, contributed to the project by examining laws and practices relevant to the internet, testing the accessibility of select websites, and interviewing a wide range of sources.
Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on a negative trajectory since June 2014. The most significant declines occurred in Libya, Ukraine, and France. Libya, torn by internal conflict, experienced a troubling increase in violence against bloggers, new cases of political censorship, and rising prices for internet and mobile phone services. Ukraine, amid its own territorial conflict and propaganda war with Russia, featured more prosecutions for content that was critical of the government’s policies, as well as increased violence from pro-Russian paramilitary groups against users who posted pro-Ukraine content in the eastern regions. France’s standing declined primarily due to problematic policies adopted in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, such as restrictions on content that could be seen as “apology for terrorism,” prosecutions of users, and significantly increased surveillance.
Image above:In September 2015, the Chinese government censored images of the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, which internet users on the microblogging site Sina Weibo posted in an allusion to the image of President Xi Jinping in a military parade. The image was shared over 65,000 times before it was removed and became the most censored image on Sina Weibo that month.
China was the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom. As President Xi Jinping made “cyber sovereignty” one of the priorities of his tenure as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, internet users endured crackdowns on “rumors,” greater enforcement of rules against anonymity, and disruptions to the circumvention tools that are commonly used to bypass censorship. Though not entirely new, these measures were implemented with unprecedented intensity. Google, whose services were frequently interrupted in the past, was almost completely blocked. Veteran human rights defenders were jailed for online expression, including lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who faces charges of “picking quarrels” in connection with 28 social media posts, and 70-year-old journalist Gao Yu, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for sending “state secrets” to a foreign website. Official censorship directives during the year suppressed online commentary on issues ranging from Hong Kong prodemocracy protests to stock-market volatility.
Syria and Iran were the second- and third-worst performers, respectively. Activists, bloggers, and citizen journalists in Syria continue to risk death at the hands of armed factions from across the political spectrum. In Iran, positive moves by President Hassan Rouhani and the ICT Ministry have led to greater bandwidth and the expansion of 3G services across all major networks. However, despite the president’s reformist rhetoric, major improvements to civil liberties remain blocked by the supreme leader and the country’s conservative establishment. Eight young people were sentenced to a combined 127 years in prison for antigovernment posts on Facebook in July 2014.
By contrast, 15 countries registered overall improvements. The year’s biggest gains occurred in Sri Lanka following the January 2015 elections. The new government unblocked previously inaccessible websites and ceased harassing and prosecuting internet users. Cuba also registered an improvement after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, marking a potential opening for the ICT sector. The cost of public internet access, though still out of reach for most Cubans, was cut in half; the first public Wi-Fi connections were established; and online media began to adopt a more critical tone toward the authorities. And Zambia enjoyed a reduction in major restrictions on online content compared with the previous year—a trend that continued under the new government elected in January 2015.
Frequently Censored Topics
The following is a selection of the topics that were subject to censorship in the 65 countries covered in Freedom on the Net. A country was deemed to censor a topic if it blocked relevant webpages, initiated takedown and deletion requests, or detained users who posted content on that topic. A complete table of censored topics is available here.
Criticism of Authorities: A remarkable 47 of the 65 countries assessed censored criticism of the authorities, the military, or the ruling family. In Thailand—where expression of antiroyal sentiment is severely restricted—authorities blocked thousands of sites featuring poetry, plays, and online radio services. In Morocco, police detained 17-year old rapper Othman Atiq for three months after he criticized them in online videos. All countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, censored such criticism.
Corruption: Authorities in 28 countries sought to cover up accusations of corruption or misuse of public funds. In Sudan, a journalist was arrested after implicating high-level officials in a real estate scam. In July 2015, the Malaysian government blocked access to the UK-based whistle-blower site Sarawak Report over its coverage of bribery allegations linking the prime minister and a Sarawak state investment fund.
Political Opposition: Twenty-three countries censored the political opposition, including Ethiopia, which obstructed hundreds of social media pages, blogs, and diaspora-based opposition websites that were created to report on the May 2015 general elections. Such censorship is often very effective in ensuring that opposing views are rarely heard and helping the incumbent government to stay in power.
Satire: Authorities in 23 of the 65 countries assessed went to great lengths to muzzle ridicule and ironic commentary about public officials. A court in Bangladesh, for example, sentenced a 25-year-old to seven years in prison—the minimum under the amended ICT Act—for sharing a satirical song via his mobile phone. And an Iranian cartoonist was sentenced to 12 years of prison for posting an image in which she depicted members of parliament as animals.
Social Commentary: Discussion on social issues—including economic conditions and cultural questions—was targeted for censorship in 21 of the countries assessed. In Venezuela, the majority of blocking activity pertained to information about the black-market dollar exchange rate; photos of long lines outside supermarkets were also subject to censorship. The Chinese authorities regulated stories about “one-night stands” in 2015. And in Indonesia, a young woman was sentenced to two months in prison after her social media complaint calling the city of Yogyakarta “uncivilized” went viral in March 2015.
Blasphemy: Twenty-one countries censored content that was considered insulting to religion. Blasphemy laws are often enforced selectively or arbitrarily to persecute religious minorities and serve political agendas. In Turkey, authorities censor content that is perceived as insulting to Islam, while offenses to other religions frequently go unchecked. Bahraini authorities are more likely to block alleged blasphemy of religious figures revered by the royal family and other Sunni Muslims than attacks on those sacred to the majority Shia population.
Mobilization for Public Causes: Seventeen of the countries in Freedom on the Net censored digital activism such as calls to protest, online petitions, or campaigns for social or political action. Authorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) censored human rights campaigners, while Russia blocked posts that called for protests after the court sentencing of opposition figure Aleksey Navalny. In 2014, the Saudi #Women2Drive campaign encouraged women to share videos and images of themselves behind the wheel to challenge a de facto ban on women drivers, but authorities blocked the campaign website.
LGBTI Issues: Fourteen countries targeted LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) content for censorship on moral, religious, or other grounds, reflecting the entrenched and often state-endorsed bias against the LGBTI community in some parts of the world. Lebanon blocked a lesbian forum used throughout the Arab region, and a transgender woman in Egypt was sentenced to six years in prison over YouTube videos that showed her dancing.
Ethnic and Religious Minorities: Thirteen countries censored information by or about a minority community, reinforcing routine discrimination against marginalized groups and obstructing efforts to combat it. In Vietnam, content promoting organized Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and the Cao Dai religious group was blocked, while the UAE blocked an online forum for Arab Christians.
Conflict: News and opinion on conflict, terrorism, or outbreaks of violence were subject to censorship in 29 of the 65 countries reviewed. In Jordan, the owner and the editor in chief of the Saraya News website were held on charges of spreading false news and aiding a terrorist organization for their coverage of the kidnapping of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh by IS militants in 2014. In China, a 22-year-old Uighur man was detained for “rumor mongering” in online posts about civilian deaths during 2014 clashes in Xinjiang.
With Blocking Less Effective, States Push for Content Removal
In a new development, more governments are now pressuring companies and individuals to remove content, as opposed to simply blocking or filtering the relevant websites and services. While blocking and filtering are still widespread tactics, the growing use of circumvention tools and encryption has made them less effective, particularly if the goal is to block individual pages and not whole sites or platforms.
By contrast, content removal—including takedowns or deletions of specific webpages, blogs, videos, articles, and social media posts by tech companies, webmasters, and users—ensures that the material is restricted at the source. Even if the content is hosted abroad and the company in question is unwilling to take it down completely, they may decide to withdraw it from view in that country, particularly if the request is rooted in local laws. This remains problematic, however, since laws in many states do not meet international standards of free expression.
The approaches to content removal vary, and can include direct government requests to content hosts, threats and intimidation directed at individual users, or broad laws that compel companies to proactively monitor and delete content. But all of these methods have the effect of shifting the burden of censorship to private companies and citizens.
In total, authorities in 42 out of the 65 countries assessed required companies, site administrators, and users to restrict online content of a political, social, or religious nature, up from 37 the previous year. Governments have also grown more aggressive in presenting companies with ultimatums, threatening to revoke their operating licenses or block entire platforms if the specified content is not removed or hidden from view. This change was driven in part by the recent proliferation of laws that criminalize various types of online speech, adding force to the authorities’ removal requests.
Common Content-Removal Methods
- Content removal requests: Requests may come from government agencies, but also from individuals, businesses, or other entities, preferably with a court order. Depending on the company and platform, these may be subject to an internal review by the company that considers the merit of each request. In some cases, however, content is removed without much scrutiny to avoid penalties mandated by law, particularly when it is hosted within the jurisdiction that initiated the request.
- Proactive policing by intermediaries: Laws that hold service providers, content hosts, or webmasters disproportionately liable for third-party (user) content can motivate these intermediaries to proactively police the content on their platforms and remove anything that may result in legal penalties. This is different from purely voluntary action taken by some intermediaries to monitor their services and enforce their own policies on issues like violence or obscenity.
- Coerced deletions: Individual users, news sites, or other content producers can be directly pressured to delete content, for example through phone calls, arrests, and interrogations.
The trend is apparent not just in the number of governments taking this approach, but also in the number of removal requests received by technology companies. Several international firms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter publish transparency reports that reveal the number of requests they receive each year and their compliance rate. Requests to Twitter from courts and government agencies around the world, for example, skyrocketed from 6 to 1,003 in the three years it has released data. Although companies in many developing markets are not very transparent about such data, interviews conducted by Freedom House indicate that requests are indeed increasing.
Incentives Driving the Trend
Governments are choosing content removal over blocking and filtering for several reasons. With the exception of highly authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Cuba, most governments do not have complete control over the ICT market or internet infrastructure in their countries, meaning blocking must be implemented by multiple internet service providers (ISPs), with inconsistent results. Even in the most tightly controlled countries, tech-savvy users are able to bypass the filtering regime with circumvention tools.
In addition, the widespread adoption of HTTPS—a more secure version of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP—has made the blocking of specific content exceedingly difficult, and obstructing access to individual pages now often requires blocking an entire platform. For example, in July 2015, a Turkish court banned five websites for promoting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. However, since the sites were hosted on WordPress.com—an international blog-hosting service that employs HTTPS—Turkish ISPs had to block all of WordPress, affecting more than 70 million websites. Governments are often reluctant to resort to this approach, given many services’ popularity and growing economic importance.
Technology Companies’ Predicament
When facing a removal request from a government, local companies have little choice but to comply, particularly if the country’s legal system offers few avenues for appeal. At the same time, some international companies have been able satisfy governments without resorting to outright takedown, withholding unlawful content for the relevant country but leaving it online for other users around the world. In India, for example, Facebook restricted over 5,800 pieces of content in the last six months of 2014, yielding to law enforcement agencies’ requests regarding hate speech and religious criticism that “could cause unrest and disharmony.”
However, many governments go much further in shifting the burden of censorship, forcing private companies to proactively monitor their networks and err on the side of caution to comply with vaguely worded regulations. Of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net, 26 hold intermediaries liable for content to a disproportionate degree, and a number of countries increased requirements on intermediaries in the past year. In Thailand, for example, an October 2014 directive from the military junta ordered ISPs to monitor and censor content that could cause conflict or disrupt peace and order, which in practice means proactive removal of websites, comments, and videos that call for political protests or are critical of the authorities.
Such pressure forces private companies to make decisions on what is lawful and unlawful content in countries where national legislation may fail to protect legitimate speech. In efforts to expand its presence in the Chinese market, the U.S.-based professional networking site, LinkedIn, has started using a combination of human reviewers and sophisticated algorithms to proactively restrict politically sensitive material from its users in China. On the other hand, Twitter, Facebook, and in recent years Google have been blocked in China for refusing to comply with similar requirements.
In the best cases involving censorship requests, companies act as a positive check on the repressive intentions of weak governments. They closely scrutinize government demands against local laws and refuse to comply if the requests do not meet basic legal standards. Frequently, though, these firms have to choose between free-speech considerations and the survival of their business in the country.
Coercion of Individuals
In some instances, instead of turning to tech companies, authoritarian governments have gone directly to individual content creators and coerced them into deleting material through intimidation or torture. This method is particularly appealing to governments when the targeted content is hosted abroad, meaning requests to foreign companies might take more time and resources, and could ultimately be denied.
In Bahrain, for example, after the arrest of the user allegedly behind the satirical Twitter account @Takrooz, almost 100,000 tweets were deleted. Only one tweet remained on the account at the time of writing: “They tortured me in prison.” In Saudi Arabia, sentences for posting controversial content online often include requirements to close social media accounts and bans on further posts. When the human rights lawyer Walid Abulkhair refused, his prison sentence was increased from 10 to 15 years.
Surveillance Laws and Technologies on the Rise
Governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance over the past year.
Freedom on the Net research identified growing surveillance as a major trend for the third consecutive year, though the motives and impact have evolved. Undeterred by the global public backlash against the NSA practices revealed in 2013, governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance over the past year.
Laws Expose User Data
Laws that require ISPs to indiscriminately retain so-called metadata—usually the time, origin, and destination of communications—or the actual content of internet traffic have been rejected by many privacy advocates, technology companies, and international bodies as a violation of the integrity, security, and privacy of communication systems. While acknowledging that these laws are often intended to assist law enforcement in investigating crimes or security threats, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and other entities have recognized that the requirements inherently infringe on the privacy rights of all in a manner that is disproportionate to the stated aim. Nevertheless, many countries—including democracies—have moved to retain or expand such rules.
Australia’s Parliament passed legislation requiring telecommunications companies to store customers’ metadata for two years, allowing law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access the information without a warrant. The United Kingdom and Italy both reinstated or implemented stronger data-retention requirements in the past year, despite the fact that the European Court of Justice struck down the European Union (EU) Data Retention Directive in April 2014 as a serious breach of the fundamental right to privacy. And in the wake of terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in Paris, France passed sweeping legislation requiring telecommunications carriers and providers to, among other things, install “black boxes” that enable the government to collect and analyze metadata on their networks.
This trend is even more concerning in countries where internet freedom violations occur more frequently. After the Russian government issued a decree in April 2014 requiring ISPs to update their SORM technology—the surveillance apparatus used to intercept and monitor ICT data—other former Soviet states that use the same technology followed suit. In June 2014, Kyrgyzstan instructed ISPs and mobile service providers to update their SORM technology at their own expense, store subscriber data for up to three years, and grant the authorities direct, real-time access to communications networks. Meanwhile, in Thailand, where the authorities frequently arrest or harass internet users for alleged lèse-majesté on social networks, one of many orders issued by the military government in mid-2014 mandated military surveillance and monitoring of social media sites.
Surveillance Technologies Proliferate
The adoption of problematic laws and regulations has been accompanied by the unrestricted spread of technologies that can make abuses a practical reality, particularly in countries with poor human rights records. A set of leaked files released in September 2014 from Gamma International, a surveillance and monitoring technology company, revealed information about the distribution of its FinFisher software—used to take control of targets’ computers—to governments including those of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Bahrain. Evidence showed that the Bahraini government had obtained licenses for FinFisher to spy on the country’s most prominent lawyers, activists, and politicians.
In July 2015, a leak of documents from the information technology company Hacking Team named the governments of Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—all of which have jailed activists and bloggers—as Hacking Team clients, despite the company’s claim that it does not sell to countries where there are credible human rights concerns. At least a dozen different federal or state agencies in Mexico were also listed as having contracts with Hacking Team. Some of the agencies do not have legal or constitutional authority to engage in surveillance. In Ecuador, leaked e-mails provided compelling evidence that the intelligence agency targeted an opposition activist’s e-mail account for infection with malware.
Governments Target Encryption, Anonymity
Given the mounting concerns over government surveillance, companies and internet users have taken up new tools to protect the privacy of their data and identity. In a landmark report released in May 2015, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye underlined how encryption and anonymity are crucial to securing freedom of opinion and expression and the right to privacy, emphasizing that any restrictions must be narrowly tailored to achieve legitimate aims.
Unfortunately, governments around the world have moved to limit encryption and undermine anonymity for all internet users, often citing the use of these tools by terrorists and criminals. Such restrictions disproportionately threaten the lives and work of human rights activists, journalists, opposition political figures, and members of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
In the wake of revelations that intelligence agencies were collecting ordinary citizens’ communications data in bulk, technology companies have moved toward default encryption settings to enhance the privacy and security of user activity. In response, policymakers in the United Kingdom and United States have called for companies to provide intelligence agencies with a “backdoor” to user data, circumventing encryption. Authorities in China proposed a counterterrorism law in November 2014 that would require telecommunications firms to provide such government access. In Cuba, encryption services must be preapproved by the government, ensuring that none are impervious to state surveillance.
Many countries place limits on the scope or availability of encryption services. In India, ISPs are banned from encrypting customer data in bulk, allowing state security agencies to scan all traffic for keywords. Bahrain passed a law prohibiting the use of data encryption “for criminal intentions”; because basic forms of expression and dissent are also effectively criminalized, the new rule could be used against human rights defenders, journalists, and others.
Encryption has been stigmatized as a tool for terrorists, contributing to illegitimate arrests. In August 2015, three staff members working for Vice News were arrested in southeastern Turkey and charged with supporting terrorists after authorities found encryption software on one of their computers. Similar accusations were brought against three Al-Jazeera journalists who were detained in Egypt and the Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia.
While encryption protects the content of communications, anonymity is necessary for securing the privacy of users’ metadata. Tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies, and the free program Tor can scramble or conceal internet protocol (IP) addresses and other details that would indicate an individual’s network and location. However, governments around the globe are working to restrict these methods, undermining international norms on user anonymity. Belarus, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are among the countries that have ordered bans on Tor, or circumvention tools more broadly, and China blocked access to several popular VPNs in the past year.
Developments in Brazil reflect the complex nature of privacy online. While the country’s April 2014 Marco Civil da Internet remains a respected legal model for the protection of digital rights, the fact that anonymity is constitutionally prohibited has left the door open to new laws that could severely restrict internet freedom. During the coverage period, a court banned the now-defunct anonymous messaging application “Secret,” and legislators proposed amendments to the Marco Civil in July 2015 that would require users to register with their real name and national identification number to post on social media or blogs.
Many governments already require real-name registration for ICT access. A decree in Vietnam bans the use of pseudonyms on blogs, following the lead of increasingly strict real-name registration for social media activity in China, and all IP addresses in Iran must be registered with the authorities.
Arrests and Intimidation of Users Escalate
Freedom on the Net has previously noted an increase in offline punishments for online expression, but the penalties and reprisals reached a new level of severity in the past year, as both authorities and criminal groups made public examples of internet users who opposed their agenda.
Of the 65 countries reviewed, 40 imprisoned people for sharing political or social content through digital networks, up from 38 in last year’s report. Courts in seven countries imposed or upheld prison sentences of seven years or more. Sentences issued during 2015 for alleged online insults to Thailand’s monarchy have repeatedly exceeded 25 years in prison. In 2015, a Cairo court handed life sentences to two journalists for online coverage of the bloody crackdown on a Muslim Brotherhood protest. In September 2014, a court in China sentenced Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, a renowned moderate, to life imprisonment, partly for running a website on Uighur affairs.
China was not the only country to target vulnerable minorities. Eight men were jailed in Egypt in December 2014 for appearing in a video documenting a gay couple’s wedding ceremony. A court sentenced them to three years’ imprisonment for “inciting debauchery,” later reduced to one year.
Image above: Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of insulting state officials and spreading propaganda for posting this image on Facebook depicting members of parliament as animals, casting votes on proposed legislation to limit reproductive rights.
Violence and Harassment
In addition to formal prosecutions, internet users faced physical violence and intimidation in a variety of forms. The web itself has sometimes been used to publicize such attacks and amplify the deterrent effect on other users. In Syria, IS militants posted videos showing the executions of international journalists, including Kenji Goto, a veteran Japanese reporter who founded the website Independent Press to cover humanitarian issues in 1996. Assailants in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas murdered Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio for administering a Twitter and Facebook network that reported criminal violence, then broadcast photos of her body using her mobile phone and Twitter account.
Even when threats precede attacks, targeted individuals do not always receive the appropriate protection. Four bloggers in Bangladesh were fatally stabbed in separate incidents over the course of seven months in 2015, despite the fact that Islamist extremists had openly threatened their lives for expressing secular viewpoints.
Many online journalists and activists fled their home countries, though some found no safety abroad. Blogger Assad Hanna left Syria following online threats stemming from his criticism of the regime, but he was badly injured by knife-wielding assailants at his apartment in Turkey.
Other users were targeted for online activism promoting women’s rights, or in ways that seemed motivated by their gender. In February 2015, Indian activist Sunitha Krishnan launched a “Shame the Rapist” campaign that featured a video demonstrating how to blur the faces of victims in footage of assaults shared on the messaging platform WhatsApp. Her car was stoned just hours after the campaign began. In January 2015, unknown individuals hacked a social network account belonging to Larysa Shchyrakova, a Belarus-based independent journalist and civic activist. They posted explicit photos of Shchyrakova that were apparently taken from a computer confiscated by the state security service in 2010.
Internet users tend to be younger than the general population on average, and police in several countries sought out teenagers who offended national leaders on social media in the past year. In western Turkey, police visited a classroom to question a 13-year-old on suspicion of “insulting” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Facebook. An 18-year-old was among six people arrested in Venezuela for tweeting about the death of a national lawmaker. Police in Belarus threatened to fine student Dmitry Dayneko after an opposition website shared his YouTube video calling on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to take the “ice bucket challenge," whose participants—including several international politicians—sought charitable sponsorships for publicly drenching themselves in cold water.
In one particularly egregious case, 16-year-old Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was charged under a new law designed to combat online harassment after he celebrated the death of the country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on video. Yee was acquitted on that charge but sentenced for obscenity and wounding religious feeling, spending four weeks in jail. The attention drawn by the prosecution fueled anger among Lee’s supporters, and Yee was assaulted outside the courtroom. In the words of his follow-up video: “All that from a video taken by a boy in his room, with a camera, in his pajamas.”
Over the past year, several decisions by legal or regulatory bodies generated significant global discussion on how to guarantee access to information while respecting other rights. The fight for “net neutrality” protections in the United States reinforced efforts in other countries to secure open and nondiscriminatory access to online content. Meanwhile, in the EU, a decision regarding search engines’ responsibility for personal data bolstered the concept of the “right to be forgotten,” which was then taken up by several national legislatures.
Net neutrality refers to the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally by network owners, and not obstructed or accelerated based on its type or the identity of senders and recipients. This ensures that all internet users have equal access to the widest array of content and platforms available, while preventing dominant companies from skewing the online sphere in their favor. For example, the principle prevents major telecommunications firms from blocking Voice over IP (VoIP) services that may compete with their traditional telephone services. It also means that users do not need to suffer imposed lower speeds for high-bandwidth content like streaming video, which can serve as an important news source—especially in settings where traditional media are constrained or inadequate.
Some regulatory agencies have recently intervened to uphold net neutrality. In the United States, after more than a year of significant public debate and unprecedented levels of citizen feedback, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules that allow it to regulate the internet as a public utility, including strong provisions that limit the extent to which ISPs can pick and choose the content that reaches their subscribers.
Similarly in Canada, the telecommunications regulator issued a ruling in January 2015 stating that companies cannot set rules or prices that favor their streaming services over those of competitors, after it was revealed that Bell had been exempting its mobile application from the download limits that it places on competitors’ apps. Other countries, such as Iceland and Argentina, passed resolutions guaranteeing the principle of net neutrality.
Meanwhile, a number of governments moved in the opposite direction. In Russia, the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service put forth a proposal in October 2014 that would allow some companies to pay for prioritized content delivery, and included references to data-heavy platforms like Skype and YouTube. In India, service providers took steps in 2014 to limit access to communication tools—such as VoIP services—that threatened their profits. They were supported by the Telecom Regulatory Authority, which created a draft regulatory framework allowing extra fees for consumers using communication apps. Indian users responded in large numbers, with more than a million people submitting comments to the regulatory authority; the issue is now under parliamentary review.
Complicating this debate is the practice of “zero rating,” in which private companies offer subscribers free access to certain popular online platforms in order to attract new users. Proponents of these programs argue that they could significantly increase access to useful web applications, but critics warn that they could result in a stratified system, with those who cannot afford full access relegated to a lesser version of the internet. Internet.org, Facebook’s initiative to offer affordable access to select platforms and applications, was rolled out in several countries across Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. In Brazil, plans to introduce Internet.org triggered discussion on whether zero rating is legal under the Marco Civil da Internet’s net neutrality provisions. In India and Indonesia, some service providers opted out of the Facebook program, citing both business and net neutrality concerns.
The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’
In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union granted individuals the right to request that search engines hide links to public information about them if it is no longer accurate or relevant, establishing their “right to be forgotten.” However, aside from information about public figures, the ruling provided little guidance as to what types of information should be hidden or retained in the public interest, meaning search engines would have to decide on a case-by-case basis, in an internal process that lacks the oversight and transparency of established legal proceedings.
For example, in Germany, Google complied with requests to delink news content about a sexual assault that named the victim, though the articles remained on the internet and still appeared in search results outside the country. In Hungary, meanwhile, Google did not comply with a request from an official who wanted to suppress information about a past criminal conviction. Some privacy advocates fought to extend the right to be forgotten beyond national borders. In June 2015, the French data protection agency demanded that Google carry out removals across all of its sites, meaning the search results would be omitted even for users outside France.
Signaling the development of a global trend, at least six non-EU countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, and Russia, considered an individual’s right to be forgotten during the coverage period. A Colombian court struck a balance of sorts in a case involving a newspaper article that implicated an individual in a criminal matter. Although the court protected Google from liability and did not order the search engine to remove links, the newspaper was required to publish an update reflecting the verdict, and make the content less likely to appear in search results by manipulating the tags that describe a page’s content for public indexing. It is unclear whether the ruling will affect other media, but it could burden news outlets or inadvertently make content on related topics less accessible.
Two other examples were particularly problematic. In September 2014, businessman Carlos Sánchez de la Peña asked Mexico’s independent privacy agency to order Google Mexico to remove three results that linked to content alleging his involvement in corruption—information that digital rights groups argued was in the public interest. The agency threatened the company with sanctions after it refused to comply. And in July 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed legislation allowing individuals to request that search engines remove links to certain information within 10 days. Unlike in the European decision, this legislation also allows public figures to make such requests, setting the stage for the possible censorship of information in the public interest.
In many ways, the past year was one of consolidation and adaptation of internet restrictions rather than dramatic new declines. Governments that had already greatly expanded their arsenal of tools for controlling the online sphere—by disrupting ICT networks, blocking and filtering content, and conducting invasive surveillance—are now strengthening their application of these methods. As blocking has become less effective, more governments have shifted to censoring content through removal requests or more forceful, coercive tactics. And as savvy internet users increasingly turn to encryption and anonymity tools to protect their rights, government officials across the political spectrum are seeking to undermine these obstacles to surveillance, potentially making the internet less secure for everyone.
It remains to be seen whether repressive efforts will be sustainable in the long run. The global struggle for internet freedom led to several positive achievements over the past year, raising the possibility of greater advances in the future. Digital activism has been and remains a vital driver of change around the world, particularly in societies that lack political rights and press freedom. The greatest gains, however, have been made through legislative changes or judicial decisions, indicating that countries with meaningful political debates and independent judiciaries have a distinct advantage in safeguarding internet freedom over their more authoritarian counterparts. These victories and others like them could help ensure that the fight for a free and open internet ultimately succeeds, despite the setbacks that have affected so much of the world in recent years.