Silencing The Messenger: Freedom Of The Net Declines For 6th Consecutive Year
The annual “Freedom of the Net” report from Freedom House makes for some interesting reading once again in 2016. It reports that Internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year, with more governments the world over than ever before targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during anti-government protests.
Public-facing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but in a new trend, governments increasingly target voice communication and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. These services are able to spread information and connect users quickly and securely, making it more difficult for authorities to control the information landscape or conduct surveillance.
The reports key findings were:
Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.
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Two-thirds of all internet users – 67 percent – 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. Globally, 27 percent 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.
The increased controls show the importance of social media and online communication for advancing political freedom and social justice. It is no coincidence that the tools at the center of the current crackdown have been widely used to hold governments accountable and facilitate uncensored conversations. Authorities in several countries have even resorted to shutting down all internet access at politically contentious times, solely to prevent users from disseminating information through social media and communication apps, with untold social, commercial, and humanitarian consequences.
Social media users face unprecedented penalties: In addition to restricting access to social media and communication apps, state authorities more frequently imprison users for their posts and the content of their messages, creating a chilling effect among others who write on controversial topics. Users in some countries were put behind bars for simply “liking” offending material on Facebook, or for not denouncing critical messages sent to them by others. The number of countries where such arrests occur has increased by over 50 percent since 2013.
Governments censor more diverse content: Governments have expanded censorship to cover a growing diversity of topics and online activities. Sites and pages through which people initiate digital petitions or calls for protests were censored in more countries than before, as were websites and online news outlets that promote the views of political opposition groups. Content and websites dealing with LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) issues were also increasingly blocked or taken down on moral grounds. Censorship of images—as opposed to the written word—has intensified, likely due to the ease with which users can now share them, and the fact that they often serve as compelling evidence of official wrongdoing.
Security measures threaten free speech and privacy: In an effort to boost their national security and law enforcement powers, a number of governments have passed new laws that limit privacy and authorize broad surveillance. This trend was present in both democratic and nondemocratic 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 antiterrorism laws to prosecute users for simply writing about democracy, religion, or human rights.
Online activism reaches new heights: The internet remained a key tool in the fight for better governance, human rights, and transparency. In over two-thirds of the countries in this study, internet-based activism has led to some sort of tangible outcome, from the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism.
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. 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 rumors on social media (a charge often used against those who criticize the authorities), while some users belonging to minority religious groups were imprisoned simply for watching religious videos on their mobile phones. The London-based magazine Economist and the Hong Kong–basedSouth China Morning Post were newly blocked in mainland China, as were articles and commentaries about sensitive events including a deadly chemical blast in Tianjin in 2015.
Just 14 countries registered overall improvements. In most cases, their gains were quite modest.
WhatsApp faced the most restrictions, with 12 out of 65 countries blocking the entire service or disabling certain features, affecting millions of its one billion users worldwide. Telegram, Viber, Facebook Messenger, LINE, IMO, and Google Hangouts were also regularly blocked. Ten countries restricted access to platforms that enable voice and video calling over the internet, such as Skype and FaceTime.
Authoritarian regimes most frequently restricted communication apps to prevent or quell antigovernment protests, as they have become indispensable for sharing information on demonstrations and organizing participants in real time. Governments increasingly imposed restrictions on internet-based messaging and calling services due to their strong privacy and security features, which have attracted many users amid growing concerns about surveillance worldwide.
Internet-based messaging and calling platforms faced increasing restrictions from governments seeking to protect their countries’ major state-owned or private telecommunications companies.
Content related to political opposition was subject to censorship in 26 countries, an increase from 23 in 2015.
Digital activism, including petitions, campaigns for social or political action, and protests, were subject to censorship in 20 countries in Freedom on the Net, up from 16 in 2015.
Corruption allegations were subject to censorship in 28 out of 65 countries
News and opinion on conflict, terrorism, or outbreaks of violence were subject to censorship in 27 out of 65 countries.
Social commentary on issues including history and natural disasters was censored in 21 out of 65 countries.
Twenty out of 65 countries censored blasphemy, or content considered insulting to religion, suppressing legitimate commentary about religious and other issues.
Information by or about particular ethnic groups was subject to censorship in 13 out of 65 countries.
Read the full report from Freedom House