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Freedom House Report: Internet Freedom Declines

An Afghan browsing the Internet.
An Afghan browsing the Internet.

Internet freedom has declined around the world -- again.

That's according to the latest Freedom on The Net report, released on October 28 by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Freedom House.

The NGO says 2015 was the fifth year in a row it has documented a decline in Internet freedom, with more governments censoring information of public interest, while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.

"Governments are increasingly pressuring individuals and the private sector to take down or delete offending content, as opposed to relying on blocking and filtering," said 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."

At the same time, tools crucial to securing freedom of expression have been subject to restrictions.

"Undermining online encryption and anonymity weakens the internet for everyone, but especially for human rights activists and independent journalists," Kelly said. "Privacy tools can help protect internet users from the kinds of abuse we document."

Freedom House monitors democratic institutions, political freedoms, and human rights around the world. In this study, it 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 information and communication technology users were jailed for sharing content on political, social, and religious issues.

Encryption Stigmatized

The study found that the most censored topics in the Internet were related to criticism of the authorities. News about conflicts, corruption allegations against top government or business figures, opposition websites, and satire were also subject to online censorship in more than one-third of the countries examined.

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.

Authorities in 40 of 65 countries imprisoned people for sharing information concerning politics, religion, or society through digital networks, up from 38 in last year's report.

Governments in 14 of 65 countries passed new laws to increase surveillance since June 2014 and many more upgraded their surveillance equipment.

Democracies and authoritarian regimes alike stigmatized encryption as an instrument of terrorism, and many tried to ban or limit tools that protect privacy.

According to the research results, China was the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom, followed by Syria and Iran.

Since June 2014, 32 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net saw Internet freedom deteriorate. Notable declines were documented in Libya, France, and -- for the second year running -- Ukraine, amid its territorial conflict with Russia.

Internet freedom saw its biggest gains in Sri Lanka and Zambia, which both experienced a recent change in government. Internet access became more affordable in Cuba after diplomatic relations were restored with the United States, but it remains out of reach for the majority.

Among the countries RFE/RL broadcasts to, Armenia and Georgia were ranked "free". Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine were ranked "partly free", while Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan were ranked "not free".