Authors highlighted greater internet activism as a bright spot among worrying developments. A protest against cybercrime law near the presidential palace in Manila October 13, 2012. (Reuters / Cheryl Ravelo)
Improved surveillance, takedown of opposition websites for “illegal content” and paid pro-government commentators are among the increasingly sophisticated tools used by authorities to restrict internet freedom, a new report claims.
The 2013 Freedom on the Net report, compiled by non-profit Freedom House, says that 34 out of the 60 countries it surveyed suffered a falloff in internet freedom over the past year.
Iran, Cuba, China and Syria were ranked as countries with the greatest restrictions. China, which blocks millions of websites and employs thousands-strong armies of censors, “led the way in expanding an elaborate technological apparatus for system internet censorship, while further increasing offline coercion and arrests to deter freedom of expression online.”
Iceland, Estonia and Germany took the podium places in the ranking, followed by the United States.
Nonetheless, the US was castigated for a “troubling decline” in internet freedom, largely as a result of wide-ranging surveillance practices revealed through Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.
“Critics have raised concern that the secret NSA programs may violate the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects people inside the US (citizens and non-citizens alike) from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as human rights enshrined in international agreements,” stated the report.
In 35 of the 60 countries examined, the government has “either obtained more sophisticated surveillance technology, increased the scope of people monitored, or passed a new law giving it greater monitoring authority.”
The authors also suspect that surveillance may have increased in other countries which are simply “better at covering their tracks.”
Many countries are also moving from technological to legal solutions in their battle against freedom of expression.
“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 report says that in 26 countries, people were arrested for posting “socially-relevant statements on social-media sites.”
Russia – which is otherwise placed in the middle of the ranking – is singled out as an “important incubator” of indirect methods of repression which are then adopted by other countries, particularly former Soviet republics.
Among the authorities’ actions is the passing of a “broadly-worded” internet ‘blacklist’ law last year that allows prosecutors to order websites offline without judicial evidence. While the law is theoretically intended to block illegal content – such as child pornography – the authors say that it has been used against opposition websites and blogs.
The government is also accused of using proxy groups, which receive public funds, “to widely engage in all kinds of digital activities, including paying commentators to post content, disseminating DDoS attacks (cyber attacks), and hijacking blog ratings.”
While the practice of paying commentators is said to have been pioneered in China and Russia, the report says that it is now being adopted in at least 22 countries on its list, such as Malaysia and Belarus.
On the whole, the tone of the report is of overwhelming concern, but in sixteen countries the situation has improved.
One major positive trend has also emerged – the rise of online activism, designed to protest laws that adversely affect the internet, or society as a whole. The report says that 11 countries – including the Philippines and Mexico – were able to repeal or soften freedom-restricting laws as a result of online campaigns.
“There is a rising public consciousness about internet freedom and freedom of expression issues. Citizens’ groups are able to more rapidly disseminate information about negative proposals and put pressure on the government,” wrote the authors.
“In addition, information technologies have started to play an important role in advocacy for positive change on other policy topics, from corruption to women’s rights.”