New Study Identifies Emerging Threats to Internet Freedom
Press Release by
Freedom House, Washington, April 1,
A new study from Freedom House
warns that the rights of internet and mobile phone users are increasingly at
risk as governments, both repressive and democratic, expand their ability to
monitor and control online activity.
Freedom on the Net identifies wide disparities in internet freedom among
the 15 countries studied and raises concern over trends such as the "outsourcing
of censorship" to private companies and authoritarian governments' use of
undercover agents to manipulate online conversations. The report cites both
repressive and democratic governments for internet surveillance and for failing
to adequately inform users about censorship standards.
"More than a billion people look to the internet
and mobile phones to provide a new freedom frontier, where they can exercise
their right to freedom of expression without repercussion," said Jennifer
Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "But as access grows, more
governments are employing diverse and sophisticated methods to monitor, censor
and punish internet users."
Freedom House developed the pilot study to better
understand emerging threats to internet freedom. Freedom on the Net evaluates
each country based on barriers to access, limitations on content and violations
of users' rights. It captures not only government actions, but also indicates
that citizens are resisting government attempts to restrict their online
Findings from the study, which covers events from
2007 to 2008, will be formally released Wednesday to a conference of more than a
thousand bloggers in Berlin, Germany. Freedom House hopes to expand the study to
examine internet freedom in all countries of the world.
Cuba received the lowest score in the study
because of the Castro regime's near total control over internet access. Three
other countries received a ranking of Not Free: China, Iran and Tunisia. The
vast majority of the countries studied received a Partly Free ranking: Egypt,
Georgia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.
Estonia tops the study as the country with the
most internet freedom. Other countries ranked Free are: Brazil, South Africa and
the United Kingdom.
The study's China report shows a particular
paradox: a country with an estimated 300 million online users that also has the
world's most highly-developed censorship apparatus. China ties with Cuba for the
country with the most curbs on users' rights, including prosecutions for online
activities, surveillance and extra-legal harassment of bloggers.
"Freedom House is heartened by the fact that citizens, even in highly-repressive
countries like China, Cuba and Iran, are pushing back with creativity and
courage against these growing government controls over the internet," said
Windsor. "Democratic countries should not only support such voices, but also set
an example of best practice with their own digital media policies."
- Growing Access, Threats: In six (40 percent)
of the countries examined, internet use doubled between 2006 and 2008.
Mobile phone penetration doubled in three (20 percent) of the countries. At
the same time, six countries (40 percent) sentenced a blogger to prison and
a third of the countries introduced new internet-restricting legislation.
Methods to control and censor traditional media are seeping into the new
media environment, but are not as common yet. In addition to imprisonment,
torture, and intimidation of internet activists, governments also engage in
online harassment by hacking or using technical means to shut down websites.
- Censorship Proliferates: Eleven countries
(73 percent) targeted political content in at least one instance, and
general censorship and control was present in every country studied.
Censorship techniques included technical filtering, manual content removal
because of government directives, intimidation, judicial decisions and
sophisticated manipulation of online conversations by undercover agents.
- Outsourcing Censorship: More governments are
requiring private actors such as internet service providers, blog hosting
companies, cybercafé employees and mobile phone operators to censor and
monitor users. This outsourcing affects both local and multinational
- More Internet Freedom than Press Freedom:
For every country in the study-with the exception of the United
Kingdom-their internet freedom score outperformed their score in Freedom
House's Freedom of the Press study, which principally examines broadcast and
print media. These differences were most pronounced in the Partly Free
countries such as Kenya, Russia and Malaysia.
- Civic Activism Increases: Citizens are
resisting government control by blogging, using code for sensitive keywords
and organizing protests and advocacy groups through social networks like
Key Country Findings
- Cuba is one of the world's most repressive
environments for internet freedom, despite a slight relaxation of
restrictions on computer and mobile phone sales in 2008. There is almost no
access to internet applications other than e-mail and surveillance is
extensive. Cuba is one of the few countries with laws and regulations
explicitly restricting and outlawing certain online activities.
- China is home to the largest population of
users, but its rulers employ the world's most sophisticated, multi-layered,
and wide-ranging apparatus for repressing internet freedom. It has the most
cyber dissidents behind bars, at least 49 as of mid-2008. In addition, cyber
dissidents are sentenced to longer prison terms than elsewhere, and
extra-legal forms of harassment and violence are on the rise. Authorities
and private providers employ hundreds of thousands to monitor, censor, and
manipulate online content.
- Iran uses a complex system of nationwide
content filtering, intimidation, detention and torture of bloggers, and
restriction of broadband access to subvert freedom of expression online.
Authorities detained and questioned more than a dozen bloggers in 2008 and a
bill enabling the death penalty for online activities passed its first
reading in parliament.
- Russia does not engage in significant
technical blocking or filtering, but authorities are increasingly removing
content through behind-the-scenes pressure. Internet freedom is threatened
by a rise in attacks and criminal cases targeting bloggers, while the
government manipulates online discussion by funding its own propaganda
- Egypt does not engage in widespread
censorship of the internet and the government has actively encouraged access
to technology. But security services and their allies are known to monitor
users and use low-tech methods of control such as intimidation, detention,
imprisonment, and torture to silence online activists.
- South Africa has a high level of digital
media freedom, but a majority of citizens are unable to access the internet
because of high costs and language barriers. Political content is not
censored and bloggers are not prosecuted for online activities. Unlike other
countries in the study, South Africa has more people accessing the internet
on their mobile phones than from computers.
- The United Kingdom has one of the world's
freest environments. But there are growing concerns about the widespread
retention of user data by service providers and the permissive environment
for "libel tourism" (in which the UK allows individuals, often from
authoritarian countries, to sue authors whose work is available in the UK,
including online versions). The procedures used by the private Internet
Watch Foundation to remove harmful internet content lack transparency and
the appeals process could be improved.
Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental
organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been
monitoring political rights and civil liberties worldwide since 1972.
Freedom House makes a difference.
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