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Study: Governments Grow Bolder in Blocking Online Freedom

Correction: Dec. 4, 19:36 UTC: Eva Galperin wrote to state that she does, in fact, see data localization as a threat to online freedom, "not because data localization is feasible, but because it will be used as a premise for censorship."

A growing number of nations are increasingly censoring parts of the Internet and passing laws to allow for greater surveillance of what people do and say online, according to a new report issued by Freedom House.

The report released Thursday and titled “Freedom of the Net 2014,” is an annual survey of 65 governments and their policies regarding the filtering or censoring of online content. It also looks at the types of electronic surveillance they conduct and how they may punish citizens whose online activities they disapprove of.

“The most dramatic declines were in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine,” said Laura Reed, a Freedom House research analyst and co-author of the report. “And similar to past reports, the countries that really rated the worst overall again are Iran, Syria and China.”

Of the 65 nations surveyed, 36 were rated lower on measures of Internet freedom than in the previous year, while only 12 saw their measures of freedom tick upward.

Among those nations seen to be doing better were Myanmar, Tunisia, Cuba, and India. Iran also was rated marginally more free because of a slight easing of censored content, despite the author’s conclusions that Iran remains one of the worst offenders globally of violating users' free expression and privacy.

Nations deemed to be less free than previously include chronic rights offenders such as Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Vietnam, as well as the United States, where the report authors charted minor increases in “limits of content” and “violation of user rights.”

The conflict in Ukraine, beginning last year with the Euromaidan protests, were seen as the major causes for both Russia's and Ukraine’s significant slide in allowing free online expressions.

In Ukraine, the surveillance of protesters by the Yanukovych regime, as well as the targeting of journalists publishing work on the web, made that nation significantly less free online, Reed told VOA.

Meanwhile, she said, Russian authorities have significantly stepped up the censorship of critical voices and independent media.

“In March, they used a new law that was actually passed in December,” Reed said. “This new law allows the prosecutor general to issue orders to block online content related to extremism or calls for unsanctioned public protests.

"So this law was then used quite quickly to block independent media outlets within Russia that were either reporting on events in Ukraine or that had been critical of the Kremlin,” she said.

Turkey highlighted

The question of Turkey, say the authors, balances on specific domestic debates about the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his professed hatred of social media.

"The sharp decline in freedom mirrors the rise of social media as a tool for rallying protests and documenting government abuses," said Freedom House analyst Adrian Shahbaz. "Over the past year, the AKP [the Turkish Justice and Development Party] has led a concerted strategy to demonize and discredit social media, with Erdogan famously labeling Twitter 'the worst menace to society.'"

"Just weeks before the March 2014 municipal elections, we saw the blocking of Twitter, YouTube and a host of other social media platforms for their role in disseminating leaks that implicated top government officials in corruption or national security scandals," Shahbaz told VOA via email.

"The Constitutional Court overturned the blocks, but only after the AKP strolled to victory in the elections," he said. "Throughout the year, opposition news sites were hit by cyberattacks, online journalists were assaulted while covering protests, and numerous social media users were charged with defaming the prime minister."

Asia and the Middle East were generally rated in the study as significantly less free than the Americas and Europe, with Africa presenting a mixed bag of both offenders, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as nations with relatively free online expression, such as Kenya and South Africa.

Among the new and more worrisome trends in this year’s report is a notable increase in the number of arrests of people for their online activities, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where arrests increased in 10 of 11 countries studied.

Other new trends include the targeting of gay or lesbian web users, as well as new laws designed to limit privacy and allow for greater governmental surveillance, with nearly 30 percent of nations surveyed passing measures to increase electronic monitoring.

Media pressures

Another trend, Reed said, is increasing pressure against independent media outlets online.

“In countries where the traditional print or broadcast media is very restricted and controlled by the government, the online sphere has really been the only place for independent or critical voices," she said. "And now we’re seeing governments crack down on those online independent voices online in very worrying ways."

Another area of concern for the Freedom House authors are new efforts in countries like Vietnam and Russia to mandate that all data generated in-country must be stored on computer servers located within their national boundaries.

On first look that may not appear to be overly restrictive of free expression, but Reed cautions that locating those servers within restrictive regimes puts users' activity records and identity potentially at risk.

“In countries like Russia, it really means that if you’re requiring companies to host Russian citizens' data on Russian soil, that really makes it easier for the Russian government to access that data, and that can potentially be very problematic for Russian Internet users,” she said.

Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst with the online freedom advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees that there have been a number of data localization efforts over the past year.

But she said they may not be end up being much of a threat to online freedom.

“In practice, mandating data localization is not feasible,” Galperin told VOA via email. “And at least in Russia, this is seen as a premise for blocking U.S. social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter when they fail to comply.”

Overall, Galperin said she agrees with the report’s conclusions, but cautions that it would be a mistake to think that only authoritarian regimes are violating people’s rights of expression on the Internet.

Spotlight on free nations

Some of the freest nations like the United States, she said, are some of the worst privacy and content offenders.

“Warrantless surveillance by the NSA remains unchecked,” she said. “Congress couldn't even pass the anemic Freedom Act, which would have curbed some small portion of the NSA's spying on American citizens and didn't address non-U.S. persons at all.

The NSA and GCHQ [the British communications agency] were just caught using malware to spy on all traffic going through a Belgian telecom company, BelgaCom," she said. "In Australia, a proposed data retention law threatens the privacy of its citizens. And the UK rolled out opt-out porn filters at most ISPs this year.”

Freedom House said the Snowden revelations about various NSA monitoring programs are being used by other governments to justify increased Internet surveillance and filtering.

But she added that those same revelations also have prompted a push-back by various civil organizations to increase citizen’s protections for privacy and online expression.

“There’s been a kind of wave of reactions to that,” she said. “One of the examples that we’ve seen throughout the world is Internet users starting to take it upon themselves to learn how to be more secure in their online communications and be more aware of what it means when they’re conducting activities online.

“That kind of broader global awareness, and also increasing push-back from civil society is where we’re seeing… some potential positive trends in the future,” Reed said.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.