Amid all those talks of an overwhelmingly large majority of people (83%) wanting to make the right to access the internet at affordable prices a basic human right, most of us do not bother to look beyond getting connected to the net. Without undermining the importance of being connected to the internet, there is no doubting the need to ensure freedom over the internet.
Sadly enough, internet freedom has fallen for the fourth consecutive year in wake of more and more countries introducing belligerent and often offensive online censorship measures while others tightened the noose and made their existing measures in regard to the same more rigorous.
The fifth annual Freedom on the Net 2014 report released by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, tracks the developments between May 2013 and May 2014 and observed that out of the 65 assessed countries, 36 have shown a negative trajectory in 2014.
Key Findings of the Freedom on the Net 2014 Report
It has been observed that an increasing number of countries are now giving legal sanction to laws that curb internet freedom, in total contrast with the previous government policy of controlling the internet using invisible strings.
Expressing dissent with the government policy or not toeing their line in the online space can invite legal action now, due to which more and more individuals and media outlets are under pressure to either censor their online behavior or face legal action and, in extreme cases, even arrest.
That is in addition to blocking and filtering of content which are among the most common means of online censorship. Imprisoning those who put up ‘undesirable’ content is being seen by governments as a deterrent and, according to them, encourages self-censorship.
At the same time, the use of physical violence against internet users ‘appears to have decreased in scope,’ says the report.
- Of the 65 countries being assessed, 36 showed a decline in the degree of Internet freedom since May 2013.
- Five countries with the most and least internet freedom were depicted in the form of a chart by the online statistics portal, Statista:
- Iran, Syria and China were confirmed as the worst abusers of internet freedom in the world- a dubious honor for them! Countries wishing to impose more restrictions (like Iran, Belarus and Uzbekistan) often cite China as an example!
- Iceland was ranked as the country with the highest degree of internet freedom. Five more countries which were appreciated in this regard are Estonia, Canada, Australia, Germany and the United States.
- 41 countries passed or proposed new laws to penalize expressing of views over the internet, to increase the surveillance capabilities of the governments or to increase the powers of the government to control the content which get published online.
- Very few countries recorded an improvement in the degree of freedom over the internet.
- India and Brazil were among those few nations where some curbs were taken off. Belarus also eased some restrictions.
- Concern was shown over both democratic and authoritarian governments seeking to curb the freedom of the internet.
- Penalty for online expression in some countries is worse than for similar expression off the internet.
- 19 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance or to restrict user anonymity.
- The number of people detained or prosecuted for their online behavior touched a record high, surpassing all previous figures.
- Among those prosecuted, online journalists and bloggers covering anti-government demonstrations were among the prime targets.
- Women all over the world “face immense cultural and socio-economic barriers to ICT access, resulting in significant gender gap in ICT use.
- The LGBTI community also faces great threats and harassment over the internet.
- With more and more internet users beginning to guard their online privacy, “malware attacks against government critics and human rights organizations have evolved to take on a more personalized character.”
Shocking Instances of Curbs on Internet Freedom across the World!
There have been many instances of internet freedom being curbed all over the world. And it is not only surprising but also shocking that even the so-called ‘democratic’ countries have not been liberal with their internet access policy. Some incidents which sent shock waves across everyone’s spines during the period covered by the report are:
- The Russian government enacted a law to crack down on all online media which criticized the Vladimir Putin’s policy toward Kremlin without any judicial oversight. Three major news sites were blocked within six weeks as a result of this law.
- One of the worst offenders, Iran, does not allow its citizens to access social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Those promoting Sufism online were made to serve long prison sentences. Six Iranians who recorded a video of them dancing to Pharrell’s song “Happy” and posted it on YouTube (the video later went viral) were punished with 91 lashes each and six months of imprisonment. The director was ‘awarded’ a full year.
- A new law in Ethiopia allows the government to snoop into computers, networks, internet sites, social media platforms, television and radio stations “for any possible damage to the country’s social, economic, political and psychological well-being”, citing that blogs, social media sites and other digital media have the potential to “instigate war, to damage the country’s image and create havoc in the economic atmosphere of the country.”
- Governments in Turkey, Thailand, Russia, Kazakhstan and Italy allow agencies controlled by them to block content with no judicial oversight and with little or no transparency at all.
- Uzbekistan passed a law requiring owners of cybercafés to record browsing history of customers for three months.
- The draconian ‘bloggers law’ passed by the Russian government in May 2014 increased government surveillance of social media users by making it mandatory for anyone having sites or pages which draw more than 3,000 daily views to register with the telecommunications regulator.
- A blogger in Ethiopia was sentenced to an 18 year term while six more await a trial for expressing dissent over government policies or actions over the internet.
- News site editors in Azerbaijan were arrested and implicated under charges of hooliganism or drug possession.
- Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist in India, was harassed online by someone using the handle @RAPIST.
- Mukhlif al-Shammari who posted a YouTube video about mistreatment of females in Saudi Arabia was jailed for five years.
- Egyptian government used an application called Grindr to track and prosecute men belonging to the homosexual community. Russian and Ugandan governments also used online tools and malware to lure people belonging to this community and then harassed them.
- In June 2013, a woman in Pakistan was stoned to death by local men after she was found guilty of possessing a mobile phone by the tribal court!
Iceland, which boasts of a 97% internet access, has no restrictions over the use of social sites and the government does not block any content was presented as a noteworthy example.
Sanja Kelly, Freedom House’s project director for Freedom on the Net, explained that governments are finding new and less detectable manners to control free speech online
“As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier – but no less dangerous – methods for controlling online conversations”, says Sanjay.
Though it is important to ensure that the internet becomes accessible for a larger number of people, mere access to it will be no good if the government makes it an additional channel for snooping over its citizens or the users are threatened, harassed, discredited, punished or imprisoned for not bowing to the rulers’ diktats.