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Censorship and Takedowns: The Last Year Has Been Awful for Internet Freedom

Autocrats around the world are figuring out ways to get around privacy and encryption tools.

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Cyber-evangelists who hope the Internet will enable the global spread of liberty are getting some bad news: A new report has found that Internet freedoms fell for the fifth straight year as repressive governments moved to censor content and persecute activists.

The report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, found that governments have in the last year more aggressively pushed private companies to remove what they consider to be offensive or politically charged content. At the same time, governments have brought more criminal charges against individuals accused of making improper postings online than ever before.

“In total, authorities in 42 out of the 65 countries assessed required companies, site administrators, and users to restrict online content of a political, social, or religious nature, up from 37 the previous year,” Freedom House found. “Governments have also grown more aggressive in presenting companies with ultimatums, threatening to revoke their operating licenses or block entire platforms if the specified content is not removed or hidden from view.”

The group’s annual Freedom on the Net report makes for depressing reading. Of the 65 countries examined from June 2014 to May 2015, 32 saw Internet freedoms deteriorate, though that decline was less severe than in recent years. Authorities in 40 countries detained individuals for posting about politics, religion, or society online. Altogether, 61 percent of the world’s more than 3 billion Internet users live in countries that censor criticism of the government, military, or ruling family. The United States is an exception, with the group ranking it sixth globally in terms of free access to the Internet. The top country was Iceland, followed by Estonia, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

As activists have in recent years demonstrated the potential of social media and digital communication to help topple governments, repressive regimes have moved to consolidate their control over the Internet. In 2014 to 2015, the Middle East, for example, saw a larger number of individuals jailed for their online activities than in prior years.

And as Internet controls have grown stronger, governments around the globe have acquired increased surveillance technologies and powers. In both France and Australia, legislatures granted the state additional surveillance authorities, and documents leaked from private security companies revealed that states around the world have acquired advanced tracking tools from firms such as Hacking Team, allowing them to target the communications of dissidents, lawyers, and human rights workers.

According to Freedom House, the growing availability of tools to circumvent online censorship — such as software to get around China’s online restrictions — has led states to force private companies to remove content deemed offensive rather than blocking access to the specific sites that contained the information. “Governments are increasingly pressuring individuals and the private sector to take down or delete offending content, as opposed to relying on blocking and filtering,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for the Freedom on the Net report, said in a statement. “They know that average users have become more technologically savvy and are often able to circumvent state-imposed blocks.”

Moreover, Freedom House notes that “governments around the world have moved to limit encryption and undermine anonymity for all internet users, often citing the use of these tools by terrorists and criminals.”

The rights organization labeled China as the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedoms. In the last year, authorities in Beijing have cracked down on tools to get around that country’s online censorship regime and have brought charges against activists, including the prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, for statements made online. Meanwhile, the official censorship regime continued to restrict online discussion of topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong.

Syria landed in second place on the index. “Activists, bloggers, and citizen journalists in Syria continue to risk death at the hands of armed factions from across the political spectrum,” the report notes.

And while Iran has seen some loosening of communications restrictions through the expansion of bandwidth, the country was still deemed the third-worst violator of digital rights in the world. The report notes, for example, that Iranian authorities handed the cartoonist Atena Farghadani a 12-year prison sentence for posting an image on Facebook that showed her country’s legislators as animals as they cast votes to limit reproductive rights.

The report also contained some good news. Sri Lanka saw marked gains in online liberty following the installation of a new government in January and the easing of restrictions on website availability. In Cuba, meanwhile, Internet access has slightly improved, though it remains out of reach for most residents of the island.

Photo credit: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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