U.S. ranks fourth in Internet freedom as surveillance grows worldwide

Internet freedom has declined in the United States over the past year as a result of its surveillance policies, reflecting a trend that appears to have caught on worldwide, according to a recently released study.

The study [PDF], conducted by Freedom House, gauged Internet freedom in 60 countries by tracking obstacles to access information online, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Among the issues cited in the report are government agencies' outright blocking of specific Internet content, surveillance measures, and legal and violent repercussions taken against those who use the Internet to criticize governing or religious bodies.

Iceland was the top-ranking nation on the list, which may not come as a surprise considering its recent role as a safe-haven for controversial Internet whistleblowers. Edward Snowden, for example, has recently expressed a desire for refuge in the country.

Estonia was the second-ranked country on the list, followed by Germany and the U.S., both of which received a score of 17 on Freedom House's scale of 1-to-100, which assigned points for higher rates of violations of Internet freedom. Australia, France, Japan, Hungary, Italy and the UK round out the top 10.

Despite its relatively high ranking, the U.S. showed a significant decline in overall Internet freedom as a result of the revelations of its surveillance capabilities and their impact on the global Internet, Freedom House explained.


"While there is no evidence that the NSA surveillance programs were abused to suppress political speech, they have drawn strong condemnations at home and abroad for their wide-reaching infringements on privacy," the report says. "Since many large technology companies -- with millions of users around the world -- are based in the United States, the NSA was able to collect information on foreigners without having to go through the legal channels of the countries in which the targeted users were located."

However prevalent this trend may be in the U.S., it is also a sign of a much broader movement among international governments of all kinds. In 35 out of the 60 countries examined, Freedom House marked increases in the sophistication of communications monitoring technology, the scope of the people monitored, and the enactment of laws enabling the government to spy on its citizens.

Russia, for example, has increased its surveillance capabilities significantly since the Arab Spring began in late 2010, going as far as legalizing the government's wiretapping of opposing political parties, the report says.

The report also included the caveat that the problem is likely more common than its research reflects.

"There is a strong suspicion that many of the remaining 25 countries' governments have also stepped up their surveillance activities, though some may be better than others at covering their tracks," the report says.

India showed the largest decline in Internet freedom since last year's report, as a result of "deliberate interruptions of mobile and Internet service to limit unrest, excessive blocks on content during rioting in northeastern states, and an uptick in the filing of criminal charges against ordinary users for posts on social-media sites," the report says. Brazil also showed a steep decline, largely due to issues involving its election and the suspicious deaths of several controversial political journalists and bloggers.

Overall, Iran, China and Cuba were deemed the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to Internet access.

At the same time, the report also showed an increase in Internet freedom in 16 countries. Morocco and Burma both made strong efforts at dissolving their long-standing censorship policies, while Tunisia began embracing a more open Internet and media culture as it moves on from the now-defunct regime of its former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.Concerns over the U.S. government's reach into the products of its private tech industry may compound the global surveillance issues as several major U.S. companies embark on far-reaching initiatives to expand Internet access worldwide. Internet.org, for example, has cited the Facebook for Every Phone mobile app among its outline for expanding Internet access.

Facebook is the driving force behind Internet.org, and has been accused of providing the NSA access to its users' personal information.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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