- - Thursday, October 3, 2013

Though the Internet has been hailed as a vehicle for individual freedom and political accountability since its inception nearly 20 years ago, a new report suggests that the Web got a little less free around the world in the past year.

The study “Freedom on the Net 2013: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media,” released Thursday by the research group Freedom House, found that a growing number of countries around the world are going to extraordinary lengths to monitor and censor its citizens’ Internet use and social media surfing.

“Some of the methods have become quite brutal,” said Sanja Kelly, co-author of the Freedom House report.

Some 34 of the 60 countries surveyed imposed have new restrictions since May 2012, according to the report. Even some leading democracies saw their openness ratings fall in this area, “often as a result of struggles to balance freedom of expression with security.”

The United States ranked fourth in the level of Internet openness, trailing only Iceland, Estonia and Germany. Finishing at the bottom of the survey were Syria, China, Cuba and Iran. And Freedom House researchers said that Web-based repression can be much more direct and personal than traditional government efforts to stifle dissent.

“In the past, political censorship mainly affected political activists, but now we’re seeing regular citizens being arrested for expressing their opinions,” said Ms. Kelly.

The rise of social media over the past five years also has added an extra dynamic to the dynamic of online free speech globally. “Because social media has become such a powerful tool, many countries have become worried,” she said.

According to the study, “Over the past year, the global number of censored websites has increased, while Internet users in various countries have been arrested, tortured, and killed over the information they posted online. Iran, Cuba, and China remain among the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to Internet freedom.”

The free exchange of ideas and viewpoints made possible by the Internet is what has attracted governments to try to control the Web’s political spaces, analysts say.

“Anytime people have the ability to [communicate], the natural human tendency is to do so,” said Sally Wentworth, senior director of strategic public policy at the Internet Society.

In many instances, individuals have been arrested and jailed for tweeting a subtle criticism of the government or even “liking” a post on Facebook that questions certain laws or government policies. Authoritarian governments, such as Vietnam, Venezuela and Ethiopia, were particularly stringent on blocking various blog and social media posts that challenged the government line.

The report cites how popular media websites “were repeatedly subject to ‘distributed denial-of-service’ attacks during the 2012 and 2013 Venezuelan presidential campaigns.

Also, the conflict in Syria saw an influx in Internet censorship and persecution. “In Syria, over 20 people over the past year were murdered because of what they posted online,” Ms. Kelly said.

Still, the report found some countries have improved their level of Internet freedom. Sixteen countries increased their scores in the past year, including Myanmar and Morocco, which “unblocked previously censored websites as part of its postArab Spring reform effort,” the report found.

The U.S. government slightly increased its Internet regulation over the past year, primarily because of new measures to counter terrorism and expand surveillance.

Many of the new restrictions target not political dissent but other illegal activities being conducted online.

“Governments around the world are increasingly establishing mechanisms to block what they deem to be undesirable information,” the report says. “In many cases, the censorship targets content involving child pornography, illegal gambling, copyright infringement, or the incitement of violence.”

Even so, “a growing number of governments are also engaging in deliberate efforts to block access to information related to politics, social issues and human rights,” the report concluded.

“Some content is harmful content and should be banned. … However, any limits should be minimal and proportionate to the possibility of crime,” Ms. Kelly said.

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