For the fifth year in a row, global internet freedom continued its downward trend in 2015, with more governments censoring information of public interest while simultaneously expanding surveillance and thwarting privacy tools, according to the annual assessment by the U.S.-based Freedom House released Wednesday.
Since June 2014, 32 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net (pdf) saw internet freedom deteriorate, according to the nonprofit, which monitors digital rights and advocates for democracy. Notable declines were documented in Libya, France, and—for the second year running—Ukraine, amid what Freedom House describes as "its territorial conflict and propaganda war with Russia."
While the end is the same—increasing erosion of privacy and human rights afforded by a free and open internet—the means have shifted slightly.
"Governments are increasingly pressuring individuals and the private sector to take down or delete offending content, as opposed to relying on blocking and filtering," explained Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net. "They know that average users have become more technologically savvy and are often able to circumvent state-imposed blocks."
According to the report, authorities in 42 of the 65 countries assessed required private companies or internet users to restrict or delete web content dealing with political, religious, or social issues, up from 37 the previous year. Criticism of the authorities was most likely to attract censorship or punishment, while news about conflict, corruption allegations against top government or business figures, opposition websites, and satire were also subject to online censorship in over one third of the countries examined.
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In fact, the study found that over 61 percent of all internet users live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family has been subject to censorship online, and over 58 percent live in countries where bloggers or other internet users were jailed for sharing content on political, social, and religious issues.
Meanwhile, even as governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance, and many more upgraded their surveillance equipment, encryption and anonymity tools crucial to securing freedom of expression were subject to restrictions worldwide.
"Given the mounting concerns over government surveillance, companies and internet users have taken up new tools to protect the privacy of their data and identity," the report reads, noting that UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye stated in May 2015 that encryption and anonymity are essential to basic human rights.
"Unfortunately," the report continues, "governments around the world have moved to limit encryption and undermine anonymity for all internet users, often citing the use of these tools by terrorists and criminals. Such restrictions disproportionately threaten the lives and work of human rights activists, journalists, opposition political figures, and members of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities."