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Sanja Kelly directs the Freedom on the Net project at Freedom House.
It has been a tumultuous few weeks in the world of Internet freedom. Among several high-profile arrests, a blogger in Kuwait was sentenced to four years in prison, with hard labor, for posting critical comments about Saudi Arabia on Twitter, allegedly affecting a cordial relations between the two countries. And in Bangladesh, six social media and messaging apps—including Facebook and WhatsApp—were blocked indefinitely amid “security concerns.” These disconcerting developments, unfortunately, are not isolated incidents. They are a part of a growing trend by governments to limit what can be said and done online.
According to a new edition of Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s annual assessment of online censorship released in late October, Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. Of the sixty-five countries assessed, thirty-two have been on a negative trajectory since June 2014. Intensified censorship, growing surveillance, crackdown on encryption and anonymity, and more frequent arrests for online activities were identified as some of the most worrisome trends.
China was the year’s worst abuser of Internet freedom. As President XI Jinping made “cyber sovereignty” one of the priorities of his tenure as leader of the Chinese Communist part, Internet users endured crackdowns on “rumors,” greater enforcement of rules against anonymity, and disruption to the circumvention tools that are commonly used to bypass censorship. Though not entirely new, these measures were implemented with unprecedented intensity. Google, whose services were frequently interrupted in the past, was almost completely blocked, veteran human rights defenders were jailed for online expression, and official directives during the year suppressed online commentary on topics ranging from Hong Kong pro-democracy protests to stock-market volatility.
Globally, in a new trend, many governments have sought to shift the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content, often resorting to direct blocking only when those measures fail. Local companies have been especially vulnerable to the whims of law enforcement and a recent proliferation of repressive laws. But large, international companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have faced similar demands due their significant popularity and reach. In some instances, instead of turning to tech companies, authoritarian governments have gone directly to individual content creators and coerced them into deleting material. In Bahrain, for example, after the arrest of the user behind the satirical Twitter account @Takrooz, almost 100,000 tweets were deleted. Only one tweet remained: “They tortured me in prison.”
Undeterred by the international backlash against surveillance following the NSA revelations, most governments have continued to strengthen their surveillance capacity—through new legal measures and through new technical means. This trend was evident in both democratic and non-democratic countries. For example, Australia, Italy, and the United Kingdom instituted new data retention requirements. However, this trend is even more concerning in countries where Internet freedom violations occur more frequently. Russia, for example, required ISPs to update their surveillance technologies, and many other former Soviet republics followed suit. Meanwhile, in Thailand, where authorities frequently arrest users for criticizing the royal family on social networks, one of many orders issued by the military government in 2014 mandated military surveillance of social media sites.
It is not a surprise then that 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. Unfortunately, some governments have moved to limit encryption and undermine anonymity for all Internet users, often citing the use of these tools by terrorists and criminals. In August 2015, for example, three staff members working for Vice News were arrested in southeastern Turkey and charged with supporting terrorists after authorities found encryption software on one of their computers. Similar accusations were brought against three Al-Jazeera journalists who were detained in Egypt and Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia.
While our research has previously noted an increase in offline punishments for online expression, the penalties and reprisals reached a new level of severity in the past year, as both authorities and criminal groups made public examples of Internet users who opposed their agenda. Of the sixty-five countries, forty imprisoned people for sharing political or social content through digital networks. In Iran, a cartoonist was sentenced to twelve years in prison for posting an image on Facebook that depicted members of parliament as animals. Sentences issued during 2015 for alleged online insults to Thailand’s monarch have exceeded twenty-five years in prison. And in China, an academic was sentenced for lifetime imprisonment, partly for running a website on Uighur affairs.
In many ways, the past year was one of the consolidation and adaptations of Internet restrictions. Governments that had already greatly expanded their arsenal of tools for controlling the online sphere are now strengthening their application of these methods. It remains to be seen whether repressive efforts will be sustainable in the long run. Although their impact has so far been limited, activists in many countries have become better informed and better equipped to push against deteriorating conditions for global Internet freedom. It is their efforts that could help ensure that the fight for a free and open Internet ultimately succeeds, despite the setbacks that have affected so much of the world in recent years.