Report finds that global internet freedom declines for sixth straight year in a row

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

  • Internet freedom is on the decline with over two thirds of the worlds population now subject to government and institutional censorship


 

Independent watchdog Freedom House has issued its 2016 report along with a chilling warning that internet privacy is becoming something of an oxymoron.

Freedom House is based in Washington and deals with how countries handle and provide the internet and technology to citizens. I imagine that it is currently hiring. The Freedom On The Net report said that freedom has declined for the sixth year in a row.

Particularly likely to fall victim to a freedom stranglehold are messaging services, which we probably could have guessed, along with Facebook posts and other seemingly benign activities.

 

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“Two-thirds of all internet users (67 per cent) live in countries where criticism of the government, military or ruling family are subject to censorship. Social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year,” said the report.

“Globally, 27 per cent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing or merely ‘liking’ content on Facebook. Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely.”

An easy thing to do here, we reckon, is never ‘like’ anything on Facebook. But this report is serious business and relates to activism, politics and journalism. Freedom House has an infographic showing the worst places for online freedom in a shade of red. The UK has an embarrassed pink hue. China is a dark blood red.

“In an effort to boost their national security and law enforcement powers, a number of governments have passed new laws that limit privacy and authorise broad surveillance,” the report explained.

“This trend was present in democratic and non-democratic countries, and often led to political debates about the extent to which governments should have backdoor access to encrypted communications.

“The most worrisome examples, however, were observed in authoritarian countries, where governments used anti-terrorism laws to prosecute users for simply writing about democracy, religion or human rights.”

The report has an internet freedom scorecard in which the UK earns 23 and China scores 88.

“China was the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom. The Chinese government’s crackdown on free expression under president Xi Jinping’s ‘information security’ policy is taking its toll on the digital activists who have traditionally fought back against censorship and surveillance,” said Freedom House.

 

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“Dozens of prosecutions related to online expression have increased self-censorship, as have legal restrictions introduced in 2015.

“A criminal law amendment added seven-year prison terms for spreading rumours on social media, while some users belonging to minority religious groups were imprisoned simply for watching religious videos on their mobile phones.”

The organisation acknowledged that some technology firms are fighting back, such as Apple refusing to help when the FBI asked for an iPhone backdoor. However, while some companies might feel comfortable kicking back in some countries, they may not in all of them.

“Faced with growing pressure to comply with government requests, some tech companies have pushed back. Shortly after the Apple case, Microsoft sued the US over the right to tell customers when data stored on the company’s servers has been handed over to government agencies,” the report said.

“Twitter initiated a similar lawsuit in 2014. And in March 2016, roughly a billion people received a huge boost in their cyber security when Facebook rolled out end-to-end encryption for all WhatsApp users, incorporating technology from the makers of the security app Signal.

“However, such resistance is nearly impossible in countries that lack free and independent judicial institutions. Companies operating in authoritarian settings have little choice but to leave the market, comply with state demands or risk blocking, closure or imprisonment of their local staff,” concluded the report.

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