FreedomHouse.org recently released the 2015 edition of its high profile annual report entitled “Freedom on the Net.” It found Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. The report contains analytical reports and numerical scores for 65 countries, focused particularly on developments that took place between June 1, 2014 and May 31, 2015.
The report measures each country’s Internet freedom based on a set of methodology questions grounded in basic standards of free expression. These basic standards are derived from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Questions are divided into three subcategories: (1) obstacles to access, (2) limits on content, and (3) violations of user rights. Each question is scored on a varying range of points. A lower number of points is allotted for a more free situation, while a higher number of points is allotted for a less free environment.
Researchers in each country examined laws and practices relevant to the Internet, tested the accessibility of select websites, and interviewed a wide range of sources. The index aims to rate real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals within each country and to reflect the interplay of governmental and nongovernmental actors.
Iceland enjoys the greatest amount of Internet freedom (with a total score of 6) while China has the least amount of Internet freedom (with a total score of 88). Of the 65 countries assessed, 32 have been on a downward trajectory since June 2014 and 15 countries registered overall improvements. A complete table of country scores can be found here.
Content removal over blocking and filtering
Many governments are shifting the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content. Previously, governments would block or filter relevant sites but this has become less effective with the growing use of circumvention tools and encryption. Now, governments can restrict content at the source. Companies may decide to remove the questioned content from view in a particular country, especially if the request is rooted in local laws. Content removal may occur if a direct government request is made to content hosts, threats and intimidation are directed at individual users, or broad laws compel companies to proactively monitor and delete content. Authorities in 42 countries required content restrictions and removal, up from 37 the previous year. Governments have also grown more aggressive in presenting companies with ultimatums. This trend was driven in part by the recent proliferation of laws that criminalize various types of online speech.
Surveillance laws and technologies on the rise
Surveillance is on the rise globally for the third consecutive year, though motives and impact have evolved. 14 governments passed new laws to increase surveillance. Laws that expose user data by requiring ISPs to indiscriminately retain metadata or actual content of Internet traffic are considered a violation of the integrity, security, and privacy of communications systems but are nonetheless being adopted. The unrestricted spread of technologies can also lead to abuses. Governments have also moved to restrict encryption and undermine anonymity for all Internet users (for more about how encryption and anonymity are crucial to freedom of expression and opinion, read the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report here).
Arrests and intimidation of users escalate
Penalties and reprisals for online behavior have reached a new level of severity. Of the 40 counties that have imprisoned people for sharing political or social content on the Internet, 7 have imposed sentences of 7 years or more. Users also faced physical violence and harassment from both government authorities and criminal groups. And because Internet users tend to be younger than the general population, police in several countries have sought out teenagers who offended national leaders on social media.
Proponents of net neutrality believe that network owners should ensure that all Internet users have equal access to content by treating all Internet traffic equally. Some regulatory agencies, such as in the United State, Canada, Iceland, and Argentina, have moved to uphold net neutrality. However, other governments are moving in the opposite direction by allowing companies to pay for prioritized content delivery or limit access to communication tools.
The “right to be forgotten”
The Court of Justice of the European Union granted the right for individuals to request that search engines hide links to public information about them if it is no longer accurate or relevant. However, the court provided little guidance as to what types of information should or should not be hidden, leaving search engines to decide on a case-by-case basis. At least 6 non-EU countries have also considered this right. This right may burden news outlets to make certain content less accessible or can be abused by setting the stage for possible censorship of information in the public interest.
Frequently censored topics
Topics are determined by whether a country blocked certain webpages, initiated takedown and deletion requests, or detained users who posted content on that topic:
- criticism of authorities (47 countries)
- conflict (29 countries)
- corruption (28 countries)
- political opposition (23 countries)
- satire (23 countries)
- blasphemy (21 countries)
- social commentary (20 countries)
- mobilization for public causes (16 countries)
- LGBTI Issues (14 countries)
- Ethnic and religious minorities (13 countries)