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Internet freedom shrinks globally in 2016

07-12-2016 | Global Updates
Internet freedom around the world declined for the sixth consecutive year, according to the Freedom on the Net 2016 report released recently by Freedom House.

Internet freedom around the world declined for the sixth consecutive year, according to the Freedom on the Net 2016 report released recently by Freedom House.

The US government-funded advocacy group has published Freedom on the Net 2016, which assesses internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 88% of internet users worldwide.

For the second consecutive year, China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Iran, the report asserts.

An amendment to Chinese criminal law added seven-year prison terms for spreading rumors on social media (a charge often used to imprison political activists). Some users in China belonging to minority religious groups were imprisoned for watching religious videos on mobile phones.

Globally, the study found that two-thirds of all internet users (67 percent) live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family was subject to censorship. Governments in 24 countries also impeded access to social media and communication tools, up from 15 in the previous year. Moreover, authoritarian countries most frequently blocked access to these tools during political protests.

“Popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but governments are now increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Messaging apps are able to spread information quickly and securely — and some governments find this threatening,” said Sanja Kelly, director for Freedom on the Net.

“Jailing of internet users led to a significant chilling effect in many countries under study. When authorities sentence users to long prison terms for simply criticizing government policies online, almost everyone becomes much more reluctant to post anything that could get them in similar trouble.”

Meanwhile, digital petitions or calls for protests were censored in more countries than before, as were the views of political opposition groups and the LGBTI community. Nearly half (47%) of internet users live in countries where alleged insults to religion can lead to censorship or arrest.

Image-sharing platforms were blocked, and world leaders took strong action when their photos were mocked on social media. In Egypt, a photo depicting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears resulted in a three-year prison term for the 22-year-old student who posted it on Facebook.

“When faced with humorous memes and cartoons of themselves, some world leaders are thin-skinned and lash out” said Kelly. “Instead of enjoying a good laugh, they try to remove the images and imprison anyone posting them online.”

Governments in democratic and nondemocratic countries passed laws that limit privacy and authorize broad surveillance, launching debates about the extent to which governments should have backdoor access to encrypted communications. Fourteen countries approved new national security laws or policies that could significantly limit internet freedom.

In two-thirds of the countries under study, internet-based activism led to a tangible outcome. Internet freedom activists in Nigeria helped thwart a bill that would have limited social media activity, while a WhatsApp group in Syria helped save innocent lives by warning civilians of impending air raids.

Since June 2015, 34 of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net saw internet freedom deteriorate. Notable declines were documented in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya. Internet freedom improved in Sri Lanka and Zambia for the second year running after new governments relaxed restrictions.

South Africa registered an improvement after activists successful used digital tools to promote societal change. The United States improved slightly, reflecting congressional passage of the USA Freedom Act, which puts some limits on the collection of telecommunications metadata.