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Global Internet Freedom Declines in 2014

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

2014 was indeed a tough year for internet freedom! As per the results of a new study conducted by Freedom House, online freedom declined throughout the world for the fourth year in a row. The independent watchdog organization tracked policy developments related to online freedom in 65 different countries and published its findings in its annual “Freedom on the Net” report. Since the study covers the period between May’2013 and May’2014, it reflects changes brought about by the governments in response to the revelations made by Edward Snowden.

If the results of the “Freedom on the Net 2014” report are to be believed, 36 out of 65 countries experienced a drop in online freedom. Additionally, 41 countries introduced or proposed legislations to enhance government surveillance, penalize online speech or increase government control over online content during the one year period. What’s worse, citizens and activists faced arrest or detention for posting sensitive content related to political or social issues in as many as 38 countries covered in the study. The situation was particularly bad in North Africa and Middle East where detentions occurred in 10 of the 11 countries that were included in the study.

The report also shows how governments are trying to curb freedom of speech online. As per the report, many countries (and even many states in United States) have introduced or stepped up regulations to identify the identity of bloggers or comment posters. In addition, some countries like Russia and Vietnam have introduced new laws which allow prosecutors to censor offensive or extremist content without requiring an approval from the court. In as many as 32 countries, authorities spied on activists and critics through malware. The report also notes how citizen journalists were attacked in strife torn locations like Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Ukraine just for posting information about anti-government protests on the web.

As a part of the report, Freedom House also ranked assessed countries according to the level of online freedom that they provide. Out of the 65 countries covered, 19 countries were rated as “Free”, 31 were listed as “Partly-free” while 19 were ranked as “Not Free”. Iceland, Estonia, Canada, Australia and Germany topped the list of free countries whereas Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, China, Syria and Iran were the worst offenders in the list of “Not Free” nations.

Through the report, Freedom House also sheds a light on some of the emerging challenges that threaten freedom of speech on the internet. The report highlights that more and more countries are now forcing online companies to store data locally so that it does not fall into the hands of intelligence agencies like the NSA. However, there is a danger that repressive regimes could misuse such locally stored personal data to penalize citizens and organizations who post anti-government content on the web.

On a positive note, Freedom House suggests that awareness regarding online freedom is increasing all over the world. The report shows how long-running online freedom movements gained momentum in 2014 and awareness regarding threats to freedom of speech expanded well beyond the civil society in response to the revelations made about the NSA surveillance programs.

January 3, 2015

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