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Report: Global Internet Continues to Become Less Free

Freedom House researchers estimate that just over two-thirds of the world's internet users live in nations that actively restrict online activity.
Freedom House researchers estimate that just over two-thirds of the world's internet users live in nations that actively restrict online activity.

For the sixth year in a row, the global internet became less free as governments around the world redoubled efforts to limit free expression, ban encryption technologies, and punish users for posting or sharing material deemed unacceptable by national authorities.

Those are just a few of the findings of the annual "Freedom on the Net" report published by Freedom House, a pro-democracy think tank in Washington, D.C.

Freedom House researchers estimate that just over two-thirds of the world's internet users live in nations that actively restrict online activity and that harshly penalize them, including by whippings and imprisonment, for their posts.

The survey of 65 nations determined that China, Iran, Syria and Ethiopia were the greatest abusers of internet freedoms, followed by Uzbekistan, Cuba, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Some nations – including North Korea, which has a long record of flagrant human rights abuses – were not included.

Among the nations that saw the biggest declines were Uganda, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Only 14 nations saw marginal improvements. Just three nations – China, India and the United States – account for roughly 40 percent of all the world's online users.

Government restrictions

"No country is perfect," said Adrian Shahbaz, research manager for Freedom on the Net. "We're trying to give a very nuanced evaluation of the problems that every country faces for upholding a free and open internet."

Among the factors of the best performing nations, Shahbaz said, were a free and open internet, very high levels of internet penetration, and strong protections for free speech and privacy.

New cybersecurity laws in China were partly responsible for that nation's ranking as the worst abuser. Over the last several years, Beijing has made it a punishable offense to "spread rumors" or "endanger national security" online. It has severely cracked down on the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access thousands of blocked websites.

Watch video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke:

Freedom House: Internet Freedom Continues to Decline
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Report authors also say governments, depending on their priorities, are censoring a wider range of diverse content than ever before.

For example, Thailand metes out harsh punishments for "disrespect" of the Thai monarchy based on the one of the world's harshest lèse majesté statutes. Many African and Middle East nations ban online content criticizing authorities or discussing LGBT issues.

Satiric or light-hearted posts also have come under new levels of scrutiny. Some people have been jailed for creating or sharing images, such as of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with superimposed Mickey Mouse ears or of side-by-side photos comparing Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with "Lord of the Rings" character Gollum.

Getting around encryption

As circumvention and encryption applications have grown in popularity, so has the targeting and banning of those apps by governments both free and otherwise.

Russia, one of the least free countries when it comes to the web, has ordered all digital communications firms to provide state authorities with back doors to encrypted applications and to hold onto users' data for at least six months.
Some nations have followed Russia's lead, demanding that internet firms turn over personal information

Others have moved to block, ban or alter encrypted apps such as Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp and Skype, as well as encrypted devices such as phones and tablets.

In the United States earlier this year, Apple and the FBI were at legal loggerheads over a court order to decrypt an iPhone allegedly used last December in a terror attack in San Bernardino, California.

Despite that, the Freedom House report rated U.S. web access as slightly more free, thanks to new legislation that curtailed some of the National Security Agency's data monitoring programs.

However, Shahbaz says, there are already some "worrying signs" about how committed the incoming Trump administration will be for maintaining a free internet.

"There were some very big gains over the last several years, whether it had to do with the [Federal Communications Commission] ruling on net neutrality or limits on surveillance," Shahbaz told VOA. "We would hope the new administration upholds these decisions made over the previous years and not roll back online freedoms."

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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.