Internet freedom in the past two years has been threatened by attacks on bloggers, web content manipulation and restrictive laws regulating online speech, as well as other diverse threats, says a new study released by Freedom House on Monday.
The Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media report by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization identified countries where the situation worsened, and said Russia was among the Countries at Risk group.
“The findings clearly show that threats to internet freedom are becoming more diverse,” Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House, said.
The report said governments are responding to increased internet influence through seeking to control web activity, restricting the free flow of information, and “otherwise infringing on the rights of users.”
Freedom House claimed that “the methods of control are becoming more sophisticated, and tactics previously evident in only the most repressive environments - such as governments instigating deliberate connection disruptions or hiring armies of paid commentators to manipulate online discussions - are appearing in a wider set of countries.”
Regarding Russia, the report said that “the internet is the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate” in the country. “However,” it added, “since January 2011, massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and smear campaigns to discredit online activists have intensified.”
“After online tools played a critical role in galvanizing massive anti-government protests that began in December 2011, the Kremlin signaled its intention to further tighten control over internet communications,” Freedom House said.
Freedom on the Net 2012 identified key trends in internet freedom in 47 countries. Evaluating each country on the basis of barriers to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, it said that Estonia had the biggest degree of internet freedom among the countries examined, followed by the United States.
Iran, Cuba, and China had the smallest degree of internet freedom, with eleven other countries receiving a ranking of Not Free. They included Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Thailand.
Twenty of the examined countries experienced a negative trajectory in internet freedom since January 2011, with the greatest declines registered in Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and China imposed new restrictions after noting the key role social media played in the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, it said.
“At the same time, 14 countries registered a positive trajectory, with Tunisia and Burma experiencing the largest improvements following dramatic political openings. The remaining gains occurred almost exclusively in democracies, highlighting the crucial importance of broader institutions of democratic governance in upholding internet freedom,” Freedom House said.
The report also identified Azerbaijan, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka as important countries seen as particularly vulnerable to deterioration in the coming 12 months.