Online freedom hit as governments ramp up surveillance
The annual report by non-government watchdog Freedom House said the setbacks were especially noticeable in the Middle East, reversing gains seen in the Arab Spring.
Freedom House found declines in online freedom of expression in 32 of the 65 countries assessed since June 2014, with "notable declines" in Libya, France and Ukraine.
The deterioration also stems from governments pressuring Internet firms—including US giants like Google and Twitter but also locally-based services—to remove disputed content, even satire which is aimed at leaders, the Freedom House report said.
Some governments are taking the strategy of targeting online companies because "they know that average users have become more technologically savvy and are often able to circumvent state-imposed blocks," said Sanja Kelly, project director for the report.
Kelly said that the response around the world to revelations about vast US surveillance efforts has led to many governments ramping up their own efforts.
She said than many countries, including democratic regimes, have implemented "stronger surveillance and data retention laws" following the revelations from documents leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
"Instead of real reforms, we are seeing more countries pass laws to increase their surveillance power," she said.
The researchers found 61 percent of Internet users live in countries where criticism of the government, military or ruling family has been subject to censorship.
And 58 percent live in countries where bloggers or others were jailed for sharing content online on political, social and religious issues, according to the "Freedom on the Net 2015" report.
Freedom House said governments in 14 of the 65 countries passed laws over the past year to step up electronic surveillance.
In another new strategy, a number of governments are taking aim at encryption by users to avoid surveillance.
Some countries "are trying to stigmatize encryption," Kelly said, citing Turkey as one example.
"They are saying if you are using encryption you must be a terrorist."
She added that "undermining online encryption and anonymity weakens the Internet for everyone, but especially for human rights activists and independent journalists."
The report said online freedom took a hit in France from new restrictions on online content that could be seen as an "apology for terrorism" and from a new surveillance law.
It also noted France's "sweeping legislation requiring telecommunications carriers and providers to, among other things, install 'black boxes' that enable the government to collect and analyze metadata on their networks."
In Libya, Freedom House cited "a troubling increase in violence against bloggers, new cases of political censorship, and rising prices for Internet and mobile phone services."
In Ukraine, the report highlighted "more prosecutions for content that was critical of the government's policies, as well as increased violence from pro-Russian paramilitary groups against users who posted pro-Ukraine content in the eastern regions."
The report said most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where the emergence of the "Arab Spring" in 2010 and 2011 was aided in part by activists' use of online social media, were cracking down on government critics.
It cited a case in Morocco where police detained 17-year old rapper Othman Atiq for three months after he criticized authorities in online videos and it said other regimes in the region resorted to "public flogging" of bloggers.
Overall, 18 countries were rated as "free" online, while 28 were classified as "partly free" and 19 "not free."
The most free among the 65 countries assessed was Iceland, followed by Estonia, Canada, Germany, Australia, the United States and Japan.
At the bottom of the list was China, worse than runners-up Syria and Iran in terms of a lack of online freedom. Cuba and Ethiopia rounded out the bottom five.
Freedom House voiced special concern in the report about laws and policies, like France's, requiring Internet firms to keep so-called metadata, which includes the time, origin and destination of online communications.
The report said criticism of the authorities was most likely to attract censorship or punishment. It found authorities in 40 of 65 countries imprisoned people for sharing information concerning politics, religion or society through digital networks, up from 38 in last year's report.
© 2015 AFP