Going Dark: the Rise of Internet Censorship

Science & Tech / Web Culture

Going Dark: the Rise of Internet Censorship

By: Lauren Saccone

Freedom of speech is one of the founding tenants of America. People have fought and died for the right to express themselves according to this basic belief. You would think that with that sort of history, America’s love of freedom would extend to the Internet. After all, what is the world wide web if not the free exchange of ideas and information across the globe? It turns out that when it comes to digital freedom, America is not number one.

Washington advocacy group Freedom House conducted an international survey on internet freedom, and some of their results were truly unexpected. Freedom House based their scores on Internet access, protection of user rights, and digital laws preserving free expression. And when they tallied up their numbers, Freedom House found that the freest online country is none other than Estonia.

Yes, Estonia, a small country in the Baltic section of Northern Europe, topped the chart for the third year in a row. Estonia’s ranking is due in no small part to its stringent laws protecting user privacy. America came in a respectable second, with Germany, Australia, and Hungary rounding out the top five.

Those countries with the worst scores were found guilty of extreme violations of internet privacy, and in some cases making access to the Internet virtually impossible. Iran received the worst score, with Freedom House noting that the country has hacked digital certificates and filtered content on a national level. People are routinely persecuted for what they look at or post online. Cuba, China, Syria, and Uzbekistan were the other bottom contenders, all receiving "Not Free" ratings by Freedom House.

Despite the positive scores of Estonia and the United States, the state of freedom on the Internet is a cause for serious concern. More and more countries are creating and enforcing restrictive digital laws that censor people’s ability to communicate online. According to Freedom House, 19 of the countries examined was found to have “tortured, disappeared, beaten or brutally assaulted” a private citizen for what they posted online. And the trend is likely to get worse.

Threats to internet freedom are becoming more diverse and are becoming much murkier than in the past,” explained Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom House report, to reporters. “What we’ve seen over the last year and a half is that more and more governments are turning to tactics such as proactive manipulation of online content and extralegal surveillance to more covertly manipulate and influence internet content.”

Even Estonia, with its relatively sterling record, was guilty of a few infractions. A 2010 law requiring all gambling sites to receive a special license or be restricted negatively, as well as the censorship of some content, impacted the country's score.

However, people are not taking these invasions on their privacy sitting down. Grassroots responses to censorship are on the rise. Technology companies frequently have proven to be supporters of internet freedom, giving weight to the efforts of citizens fighting for their online rights. The Arab Spring uprisings are a prime example of this.

Despite these efforts, the fact remains that the digital landscape is rapidly becoming a place dominated by restrictive laws. And if Freedom House’s predictions are correct, things only look to get worse.

[Pic via Flickr - Luca De Santis]

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