Governments Worldwide Increase Online Surveillance, Report Shows

U.S. drops from second to fourth place in global Internet freedom ranking.

Internet users browse their Facebook pages via the free wifi Internet service in an underground station on June 16, 2013, in Hong Kong.
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Internet monitoring is not unique to the United States. Surveillance states grew in scope and activity in nations worldwide this past year, according to a new report unveiled Thursday that tallied the U.S. fourth out of 60 countries ranked by Internet freedoms.

The Freedom on the Net 2013 report unveiled Thursday by human rights watchdog Freedom House analyzed and ranked the Internet freedoms of 60 countries based on events that occurred between May 2012 and April 2013. Revelations about widespread online surveillance by the National Security Agency cost the U.S. points against its Internet freedom score, knocking it down from second place in the 2012 report to fourth place this year.

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Iceland, Estonia and Germany took the first-, second- and third-place titles, respectively, as the countries with the greatest digital rights, which include free speech and access to information. China, Cuba and Iran ranked as the countries with the fewest digital rights for the second consecutive year. Freedom House began publishing the annual report in 2009.

Digital rights declined in 34 of the 60 countries researched in the report since May 2012. This is in part a reaction to the growing use of social media to fuel protests, and the increased access to information online that was traditionally censored on television and newspapers by governments.

"While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of censorship in many countries, governments are increasingly looking at who is saying what online, and finding ways to punish them," said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House. "In some countries, a user can get arrested for simply posting on Facebook or for 'liking' a friend's comment that is critical of the authorities."

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Governments upgraded their surveillance of digital networks in 35 of the 60 countries. Governments in 24 of the 60 countries implemented laws to restrict free speech, some of which imprison bloggers with sentences of up to 14 years for writing articles criticizing authorities. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other communications websites were blocked temporarily or permanently in 19 of the 60 countries in the report this past year.

"In some countries, even blogging about environmental pollution, posting a video of a cynical rap song, or tweeting about the town mayor's poor parking could draw the police to a user's door," Kelly said."Although democratic states generally do not target political speech, several have sought to implement disproportionate restrictions on content they perceive as harmful or illegal, such as pornography, hate speech and pirated media."

The silver lining in the report is that activists, tech companies and everyday Internet users are getting better at pushing back against government efforts to restrict digital rights, and some governments have become more receptive to feedback from their citizens about proposed laws.

"While such positive initiatives are significantly less common than government attempts to control the online sphere, the expansion of this movement to protect Internet freedom is one of the most important developments of the past year," Kelly said.

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