Increased surveillance, new laws controlling web content and growing arrests of social-media users have caused a worldwide decline in internet freedom in the past year, according to a new study released October 3 by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. Countries of the former Soviet Union scored particularly badly.
The survey, "Freedom on the Net 2013", identifies key trends in internet freedom in 60 countries, and evaluates each country based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Among the 10 most commonly used types of internet control were:
• Blocking and filtering of political and social content over the past year - especially common in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though Russia intensified such blocking in the past year;
• Cyber-attacks against government critics, especially in the run-up to politically charged events like elections - in countries ranging from Belarus to Vietnam to Bahrain, opposition figures are routinely targeted with malicious software that is masked as important information about political developments or planned protests;
• New laws that criminalize speech, either explicitly or through vague wording that can be interpreted in such a way - Turkey and Azerbaijan are among the countries that have, over the past year, significantly stepped up arrests of users for their online activism and posts;
• Paid pro-government commentators to discredit the opposition - a method spearheaded by China and Russia, and increasingly common in countries like Belarus;
• Takedown and deletion requests that bypass the courts and simply threaten legal action or other reprisals like losing one's job - an increasingly effective censorship tool used against bloggers and activists in numerous countries like Russia and Azerbaijan.
Then, of course, there's the tried-and-tested physical attacks and murder. "In 26 of the 60 countries assessed, at least one blogger or internet user was attacked, beaten, or tortured for something posted online. In five of those countries, at least one activist or citizen journalist was killed in retribution for information posted online, in most cases information that exposed human rights abuses," say the report's authors.
Of the 60 countries in Central and Eastern Europe/Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) that were included in the study, Estonia scored particularly well, ranked the second freest behind top-placed Iceland. Also in the "Free" category was Hungary in eighth place, ahead of even the UK in tenth, Georgia in 12th, Ukraine (surprisingly) in 16th and Armenia in 17th.
"Access to the internet in Armenia has significantly improved over the past few years, with the internet penetration rate increasing from approximately 6 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2012," Freedom House notes.
In the "Partly Free" category came Kyrgyzstan (23rd), Turkey (38th), Azerbaijan (39th), Russia (41st) and Kazakhstan (44th). In Azerbaijan, the report says the government there is practicing what has been termed "networked authoritarianism" - a middle path between open access and censorship, where online content is relatively uncensored. "Over the course of the last few years, Azerbaijan has acquired a vibrant and rapidly growing online community... [and] its limited, though growing, community of users has yet to see any major restrictions imposed on the technical level, given the country's ongoing commitment and eagerness to promote itself as a leader of information and communication technology (ICT) innovation in the region," says the report.
In the "Not Free" category was Belarus (50th) and Uzbekistan (55th), which was just ahead of such luminaries as China (58th) and Iran in last place. Uzbekistan remains one of the most restrictive in Central Asia, the report notes. "The Uzbek authorities block access to a wide range of international news websites, human rights groups, and exile publications, while at educational and cultural institutions, access is strictly limited to the national intranet system, or ZiyoNet," it says. "A popular online news site, Olam.uz... was shut down in January 2013 due to the politically motivated charges against its owner and editor-in-chief. Additionally, two journalists reporting for online media are serving long sentences on trumped-up charges."
Finally, the report notes that the only countries from the CEE/CIS region that improved their score from last year were Estonia, Belarus and Georgia; the rest had worsened.
However, the report was not all doom and gloom. It also found that activists are becoming more effective at raising awareness of emerging threats and, in several cases, have helped forestall new repressive measures. "While such positive initiatives are significantly less common than government attempts to control the online sphere, the expansion of this movement to protect internet freedom is one of the most important developments of the past year," it says.
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