Censors Close In on Global Internet Freedom Four Years Running

EspañolInternet freedom around the world has declined for the fourth consecutive year, warns the latest report from Freedom House. More and more governments have increased their censorship and monitoring of the web, using increasingly sophisticated and aggressive methods.

On the American continent, Venezuela (56), the United States (19), and Mexico (39) were the three countries that registered the greatest slip in their rating out of 100 points, with a loss of three, two, and three points, respectively.

The Freedom on the Net 2013 report, published December 3, examined 65 countries between May 2013 and May 2014, analyzing laws affecting the internet and the accessibility of web pages, and interviewed those who used the web as both a method of communication and for online activism.

With zero being the best rating and 100 the worst, Iran (89), Syria (88) and China (87) were the worst-scored countries in the study. China was found to have intimidated  — and in some cases arrested — users who had posted criticisms of the government online.

In Syria, pro-government hackers infected more than 10,000 computers with a virus that hid warnings of ongoing cyber attacks. The report classifies the war-torn state as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists: 24 reporters were killed between 2013 and 2014.

Russia (60), Turkey (55), and Ukraine (33) were the countries that increased their control over web content the most, such as blocking access to information during political crises, above all during the Russian annexation of Crimea. In the past year, Turkey has increased blocks on social networks, and expanded its program of cyber attacks against Twitter, YouTube, and news and opposition websites.

Conversely, internet freedom has increased in only 12 countries. The majority of the improvements were due to the further reduction of technical controls on internet use, rather than a broader, genuine approach by governments to lessen their control over the internet.

India was the most successful in decreasing restrictions on web access, largely due to the removal of blocks to web content, imposed in 2013 with the stated aim of preventing civil disturbances in the northeast of the country.

Tabla que demuestra los países que más retrocedieron en libertad en internet. (Freedom House).
Decline in internet freedom by country.  (Freedom House)

Censors of Latin America

Cuba (84), Venezuela (56), Mexico (39), and Ecuador (37) were the Latin-American countries considered to be partially or completely without internet freedom. In these nations, web access is often difficult, be it through economic restraints which limit frequent use by part of the population, or by government efforts — such as regulations on telecommunications companies, blocking technological applications, or laws prohibiting internet access.

In 2013, Cuba extended access to the internet, albeit with connection points designed and monitored by the government, and with a prohibitively expensive hourly price approaching some 20 percent of the national minimum wage.

Cuba and Venezuela, ruled by authoritarian regimes, are the countries with the least internet freedom in the Americas.
Cuba and Venezuela, ruled by authoritarian regimes, are the countries with the least internet freedom in the Americas. (Freedom House).

The Venezuelan government, in turn, blocked access to the internet on several occasions during the examined period. The most important instance took place in February 2014, while street protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro continued for 36 hours.

In the same month, the government blocked over 400 websites hosting political and economic information. One notable example was the censorship of the Colombian media outlet NTN24, after it published a video showing the murder of a Venezuelan student and activist.

The study found that Mexico was one of the most hostile atmospheres for journalists and activists worldwide. Reporters were constantly the victims of intimidation because of material they published.

The delay of seven months in passing the Telecommunications Law — which included measures against the monopoly of internet and cell-phone service provision — also served to knock points off the country’s score.

For its part, the Ecuadorian government was judged to have attacked internet freedom by approving the Communications Law, which censored those traditional media outlets with a web presence.

Lands of the Free, Online

Meanwhile, Colombia (30), Brazil (30), Argentina (27), the United States (19), and Canada (15) are the countries that enjoy the greatest internet freedom.

In Colombia, 100,000 low-income families now have access to the web, thanks to a government initiative which installed connections points in their houses. Another action which boosted Colombia’s rating was a ruling in favor of Google, exempting it from responsibility for the content of the web pages produced by its search engine.

Brazil was highlighted for creating a law which gave tax exemptions to certain types of smartphones, and approving a law nicknamed “the Internet Constitution,” which protected the privacy of users, among other positive measures.

Argentina, although boasting easy access to the web, was the scene of several cases of online censorship. The most well-known took place in December 2013, when Juan Pablo Suárez, content editor of the Última Hora website, was arrested for filming the arrest of a police official.

Further north, Canada debated in October 2013 a proposal aiming to combat cases of online harassment, but which contained articles making it easier to find out the details of net users.

In the United States, the vetoing of laws against net neutrality was highlighted, alongside a legislative proposal which obliged internet service providers to hand over details of their users only upon receipt of a search warrant. On the other hand, September 2013 saw still further details come to light about the massive espionage program carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Internet Freedom at a Crossroads

During the presentation of the report, its findings were analyzed by six representatives from various think tanks in favor of internet freedom. Among them were the director of the study, Sanja Kelly, and the founder of Yahoo’s human-rights program, Michael Samway.

The experts concluded that the internet is currently at a key moment for the future of humanity. They emphasized how information about the huge political and social changes of recent years has been rapidly disseminated around the world via the internet.

All the panelists agreed that, in order for the web to continue being free, civil society must be vigilant about legislative proposals to control the creation, spread, and free access of online media.

None were optimistic about the immediate future of web freedom, but they underlined the importance of continuing to fight in favor of liberty online, arguing that a free internet is synonymous with human well-being, freer markets, and economic progress.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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