10 December, 2014
A new report says a growing number of nations are restricting parts of the Internet to the public. It says these countries also are passing laws that permit greater spying on what people do and say online.
The report is called "Freedom of the Net 2014." It comes from Freedom House, the non-governmental democracy and rights group. Freedom House examined 65 governments on their policies and actions connected to online content.
The group rated 36 of the 65 nations lower on measures of Internet freedom than in the year before. Only 12 nations saw their measures of freedom increase.
Laura Reed is a Freedom House researcher. She helped prepare the report.
She says Myanmar, Tunisia, Cuba, and India were among the nations in which Freedom House noted improvement. Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Vietnam were said to be less free than last year. The United States was said to have increases in "limits of content" and "violation of user rights."
The governments in both Russia and Ukraine reportedly grew more restrictive of online expressions. The report mainly blamed the conflict in Ukraine for that finding.
Laura Reed says the administration of former President Viktor Yanukovych spied on protesters and targeted reporters who published online content.
In Russia, she says, officials greatly increased restrictions on critical independent media.
The new report says Turkey grew more restrictive as social media expanded as a tool for organizing protests and reporting government abuses.
Adrian Shabaz works for Freedom House as an investigator. He says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party carried out a campaign to discredit social media. He says the government blocked Twitter, YouTube and other social media groups before elections. The Constitutional Court overturned the government's actions after the voting. The president's party won those elections.
The Freedom House report generally rated Asia and the Middle East as having less Internet freedom than the Americas and Europe. It found mixed results in Africa. The group described Ethiopia and Sudan as offenders of online freedom. But it said Kenya and South Africa permitted relatively free online expression.
Among the new and more worrisome developments in the report is an increase in the number of arrests of people for online activities. The report documented this in 10 of the 11 countries studied in the Middle East and North Africa.
Other new developments include the targeting of homosexual web users, and laws designed to limit privacy and permit greater governmental spying. The group said almost 30 percent of nations in its study passed measures to increase electronic observation.
Laura Reed says the study also found increasing pressure against online independent media groups.
She says governments that have a lot of control over traditional print and broadcast media are taking action against online media groups. The Internet, in her words, "has really been the only place for independent or critical voices."
The report also discussed efforts in some countries to require that all content created in-country be stored on computer servers within national borders.
Laura Reed warns that this could put users' activity records and identity at risk. She says a government would be able to access its citizens' information much more easily. She says that could be a big problem for citizens of countries like Russia.
Eva Galperin is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online freedom advocacy group. In an e-mail to VOA, she said she generally agrees with the report's findings. However, she also wrote it would be a mistake to think that only repressive governments are violating rights of expression on the Internet. She said some of the freest nations are some of the worst privacy and content offenders. She said the U.S. National Security Agency spies on Internet users without legal search orders.
This report was based on stories from VOA reporters Zlatika Hoke and Doug Bernard. Caty Weaver wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.