Global internet freedom is on the decline as governments pass more laws that restrict online speech, control content and increase surveillance capabilities.
That's according to new report 'Freedom on the Net 2014', the fifth annual study of worldwide internet freedom compiled by the New York advocacy group Freedom House.
The study covered web use in 65 countries between May 2013 and May 2014. 36 of the countries were found to have reduced their internet freedom from the previous 12 months.
Freedom House handed out scores of between 0 and 100 to each nation, with 0 meaning "free" and 100 representing the "worst-case scenario". According to the report, Iceland was determined to have the least restrictions on internet use with a score of just 6, while Iran, Syria, China and Cuba faired worst with scores all in the 80s. Ireland was not included in the report.
The report pointed to an increasing trend that saw governments adopt a 'behind-the-scenes' approach to internet control, introducing new laws to legitimise existing repression and effectively criminalise online dissent.
"The past year also saw increased government pressure on independent news websites, which had previously been among the few uninhibited sources of information in many countries, in addition to more people detained or prosecuted for their digital activities than ever before," wrote the editors.
The report noted that last year's revelations into the mass surveillance programmes orchestrated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had caused greater awareness of the threats to fundamental privacy and freedom of expression online.
Last month, China hosted the first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen. The event was interpreted as an effort by the Chinese government to increase its influence on global cyberspace rules. Amnesty International has condemned China’s practice of regularly blocking websites and has also pointed to the detainment of hundreds of people who have expressed their views online since President Xi Jinping came to power as suppressing freedom of expression.
“Internet freedom is under attack by governments across the world. Now China appears eager to promote its own domestic internet rules as a model for global regulation,” William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement released as the conference got under way.
“This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom. China’s internet model is one of extreme control and suppression. The authorities use an army of censors to target individuals and imprison many activists solely for exercising their right to free expression online.”
In the US, Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that prohibits the government from building backdoors into US software and electronics, pointing to a recent proposal by government officials that would compel companies to build backdoors in the security features of their products, calling it a threat to national security interest.
“Strong encryption and sound computer security is the best way to keep Americans’ data safe from hackers and foreign threats,” said Wyden in a statement.
“It is the best way to protect our constitutional rights at a time when a person’s whole life can often be found on his or her smartphone. And strong computer security can rebuild consumer trust that has been shaken by years of misstatements by intelligence agencies about mass surveillance of Americans.
“This bill sends a message to leaders of those agencies to stop recklessly pushing for new ways to vacuum up Americans’ private information, and instead put that effort into rebuilding public trust.”