Internet Freedom Wanes Worldwide as Governments Target Messaging Apps and Social Media

The newly released Freedom on the Net 2016, a report from Freedom House, has found that the internet is getting less free around the world. According to their findings, 67 percent of internet users live in countries where “criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship” and 64 percent live in “not free” or “partly free” environments. This is the sixth year in a row that the global level of internet access has declined.

Freedom on the Net examines the state of internet freedom in 65 countries, which includes 88 percent of the internet users around the world. Over 70 researchers, most of them based in the country they’re studying, examine internet laws and practices, test website accessibility, and interview people on the ground. This is the seventh report and it looks specifically at the time period between June 2015 and May 2016.

During that time period, 34 of the 65 countries were determined to be on a “negative trajectory.” The report notes particularly downward trends in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya. The least free country is China, followed closely by Syria and Iran. The most free is Estonia, followed closely by Iceland.

When the researchers examined specifics, a few trends emerged in regards to what, exactly, is being censored. Social media was a particular target this year, with arrests for social media posts being made in 38 countries — a number that has increased by 50 percent since 2013. Worldwide, 27 percent of internet users live in country where they can be arrested for publishing, sharing, or “liking” content on Facebook. Some examples cited by the report include an arrest in Thailand for mocking the king’s dog and an arrest in Saudi Arabia for “spreading atheism.”

Social Media and Messaging Apps under attack

Additionally, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have been heavily targeted this year, in what the report is calling a “new trend.” Governments are cracking down because these apps are used to spread information quickly and have been used in social movements worldwide in recent years. Some governments have even shut off access to all social media during times of social unrest, cutting their populace off not only from communication with each other, but also the outside world.

Courtesy of

Another trend is that the type of content governments are restricting has become more varied. The report found that sites used to create digital petitions or put out a call for protests were censored in more countries than they had found in previous reports. They also found that websites that addressed LGBT issues or posted related content were blocked or taken down completely on “moral grounds” and websites or news outlets that promoted political views that were opposite that of a ruling party were also targeted.

The final restriction the report noted was on voice and video calling apps like Skype. These they credited, however, not to suppression of communication but simply because governments are trying to protect revenue of national telecommunications firms.

In one bit of good news, the United States actually improved its score in this latest report, largely due to the USA Freedom Act, which The Verge reports limits the ability of the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect bulk metadata.

Photo courtesy of @gilleslambert.

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