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Freedom on the Net 2014: New Controls, Arrests Drive Internet Freedom Decline

Washington – December 4, 2014 –   Global internet freedom declined for a fourth consecutive year, according to a Freedom House report released today. New laws criminalized online dissent and legitimized overbroad surveillance and data collection, while more people were arrested for legitimate online activities than ever before.

“Authoritarian and democratic leaders alike believe the internet is ripe for regulation and passed laws that strengthen official powers to police online content,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net. “The scramble to legislate comes at the expense of user rights, as lawmakers deliberately or misguidedly neglect privacy protections and judicial oversight.” The situation is especially problematic in less democratic states where citizens have no avenues to challenge or appeal government’s actions.

“Countries are adopting laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent,” the report concludes. “More people are being arrested for their internet activity than ever before, online media outlets are increasingly pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests for data or deletions.”

Freedom on the Net 2014 found 36 of the 65 countries assessed experienced a negative trajectory in internet freedom since May 2013, with major deteriorations in Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. Revelations of widespread surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) bolstered nondemocratic regimes that spy on their opponents, but also inspired civil society activists to mount legal and technical challenges against invasive monitoring.

The worst abusers of internet freedom were Iran, Syria, and China. Very few countries registered lasting policy improvements. One exception was Brazil, where a long-debated bill known as the Marco Civil da Internet passed with strong privacy protections and important provisions governing net neutrality.

“Policies implemented at the national level change the internet for everyone,” Kelly said. “Restrictions could transform the worldwide network we rely on into a fragmented mosaic.”

Key Findings:

  • Between May 2013 and May 2014, 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalize legitimate forms of speech online, increase government powers to control content, or expand government surveillance capabilities.
  • Since May 2013, arrests for online communications pertinent to politics and social issues were documented in 38 of the 65 countries, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, where detentions occurred in 10 out of the 11 countries examined in the region.
  • Pressure on independent news websites, among the few unfettered sources of information in many countries, dramatically increased. Dozens of citizen journalists were attacked while reporting on the conflict in Syria and antigovernment protests in Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine. Other governments stepped up licensing and regulation for web platforms.

Emerging Threats: 

  • Data localization requirements—by which private companies are required to maintain data storage centers within a given country—are multiplying, driven in part by NSA revelations, which spurred more governments to bring international web companies under domestic jurisdiction. These measures could expose user data to local law enforcement.
  • Women and LGBTI rights are undermined by digital threats and harassment, resulting in self-censorship that inhibits their participation in online culture.
  • Cybersecurity is eroding as government critics and human rights organizations are subject to increasingly sophisticated and personalized malware attacks, documented in 32 of the 65 countries examined.

To view the summary of findings, click here.

To download the full report, including detailed chapters for the 65 countries covered, click here. 

To download high resolution map of internet freedom, click here.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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