For the fifth year in a row, independent watchdog association Freedom House reported that the world wide web isn’t quite as free as its touted to be. According to this year’s Freedom on the Net report, “more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”
Since June 2014, the most significant dips in online freedom occurred in Libya, Ukraine and France. China occupies the top spot as the worst abuser of internet freedom, with Google being almost completely blocked in the country and repressive laws governing online behaviour being enforced with greater gusto.
Globally, surveillance has increased and if there’s one thing that governments and terrorist groups have in common, it is their hatred of online whistleblowers and critics. While this has manifested in tragic injustices like the recent death sentence for Saudi-Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, the report mentions some more bizarre examples. For instance, in September this year, China censored images of the cartoon character Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh Bear had been used to reference President Xi Jinping on a popular Chinese microblogging site.
The new trend in 2015, according to Freedom House, is that “many governments have sought to shift the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content, often resorting to direct blocking only when those measures fail.” . In India, for example, Facebook restricted over 5,800 pieces of content in the last six months of 2014, because of law enforcement agencies’ requests regarding hate speech and religious criticism. It turns out India has the third largest number of internet subscribers (after China and United States), despite internet penetration chalking up to a measly 24%. Interestingly, cybercrime has registered a 40% increase, with many of these attacks originating in Pakistan.
As far as online freedom is concerned, the report concludes that the Indian internet boasts of content that is “diverse and lively”. The past year saw a few victories for the online community in India. The contentious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was struck down by the Supreme Court. Social media and the internet were used effectively for activism and to mobilise relief work after natural disasters. We’ve just seen how critical a role Twitter played in coordinating rescue efforts and circulating information during the recent deluge in Chennai. No doubt thanks to all this, India’s Freedom on the Net score has improved since 2014, despite the many instances of blocked and filtered content in the past year.
With a score of 40 (out of 100, with 100 denoting the complete absence of freedom), India comes in the “Partly Free” category.
You can read Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report here.