The World Cracks Down on the Internet.
In September of last year, Chinese authorities announced an unorthodox standard to help them decide whether to punish people for posting online comments that are false, defamatory, or otherwise harmful: Was a message popular enough to attract five hundred reposts or five thousand views? It was a striking example of how sophisticated the Chinese government has become, in recent years, in restricting Internet communication—going well beyond crude measures like restricting access to particular Web sites or censoring online comments that use certain keywords. Madeline Earp, a research analyst at Freedom House, the Washington-based nongovernmental organization, suggested a phrase to describe the approach: “strategic, timely censorship.” She told me, “It’s about allowing a surprising amount of open discussion, as long as you’re not the kind of person who can really use that discussion to organize people.”
On Thursday, Freedom House published its fifth annual report on Internet freedom around the world. As in years past, China is again near the bottom of the rankings, which include sixty-five countries. Only Syria and Iran got worse scores, while Iceland and Estonia fared the best. (The report was funded partly by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United States Department of State, Google, and Yahoo, but Freedom House described the report as its “sole responsibility” and said that it doesn’t necessarily represent its funders’ views.)
China’s place in the rankings won’t come as a surprise to many people. The notable part is that the report suggests that, when it comes to Internet freedom, the rest of the world is gradually becoming more like China and less like Iceland. The researchers found that Internet freedom declined in thirty-six of the sixty-five countries they studied, continuing a trajectory they have noticed since they began publishing the reports in 2010.
Earp, who wrote the China section, said that authoritarian regimes might even be explicitly looking at China as a model in policing Internet communication. (Last year, she co-authored a report on the topic for the Committee to Protect Journalists.) China isn’t alone in its influence, of course. The report’s authors even said that some countries are using the U.S. National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance, which came to light following disclosures by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, “as an excuse to augment their own monitoring capabilities.” Often, the surveillance comes with little or no oversight, they said, and is directed at human-rights activists and political opponents.
China, the U.S., and their copycats aren’t the only offenders, of course. In fact, interestingly, the United States was the sixth-best country for Internet freedom, after Germany—though this may say as much about the poor state of Web freedom in other places as it does about protections for U.S. Internet users. Among the other countries, this was a particularly bad year for Russia and Turkey, which registered the sharpest declines in Internet freedom from the previous year. In Turkey, over the past several years, the government has increased censorship, targeted online journalists and social-media users for assault and prosecution, allowed state agencies to block content, and charged more people for expressing themselves online, the report noted—not to mention temporarily shutting down access to YouTube and Twitter. As Jenna Krajeski wrote in a post about Turkey’s Twitter ban, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed in March, “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. They will see the power of the Turkish Republic.” A month later, Russian President Vladimir Putin, not to be outdone by Erdoğan, famously called the Internet a “C.I.A. project,” as Masha Lipman wrote in a post about Russia’s recent Internet controls. Since Putin took office again in 2012, the report found, the government has enacted laws to block online content, prosecuted people for their Internet activity, and surveilled information and communication technologies. Among changes in other countries, the report said that the governments of Uzbekistan and Nigeria had passed laws requiring cybercafés to keep logs of their customers, and that the Vietnamese government began requiring international Internet companies to keep at least one server in Vietnam.
What’s behind the decline in Internet freedom throughout the world? There could be several reasons for it, but the most obvious one is also somewhat mundane: especially in countries where people are just beginning to go online in large numbers, governments that restrict freedom offline—particularly authoritarian regimes—are only beginning to do the same online, too. What’s more, governments that had been using strategies like blocking certain Web sites to try to control the Internet are now realizing that those approaches don’t actually do much to keep their citizens from seeing content that the governments would prefer to keep hidden. So they’re turning to their legal systems, enacting new laws that restrict how people can use the Internet and other technologies.
“There is definitely a sense that the Internet offered this real alternative to traditional media—and then government started playing catch-up a little bit,” Earp told me. “If a regime has developed laws and practices over time that limit what the traditional media can do, there’s that moment of recognition: ‘How can we apply what we learned in the traditional media world online?’ ”
There were a couple of hopeful signs for Internet activists during the year. India, where authorities relaxed restrictions that had been imposed in 2013 to help quell rioting, saw the biggest improvement in its Internet-freedom score. Brazil, too, notched a big gain after lawmakers approved a bill known as the Marco Civil da Internet, which protects net neutrality and online privacy. But, despite those developments, the report’s authors didn’t seem particularly upbeat. “There might be some cautious optimism there, but I do not want to overstate that because, since we started tracking this, it’s been a continuous decline, unfortunately,” Sanja Kelly, the project director for the report, told me. Perhaps the surprising aspect of Freedom House’s findings isn’t that the Internet is becoming less free—it’s that it has taken this long for it to happen.