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Freedom House report: Governments strangling the web

Freedom House report: Governments strangling the web
From Al Jazeera - November 14, 2017

Information wants to be free, as the saying goes, but a new report from the America non-governmental organisation Freedom House suggests that freedom on the internet is in steady decline.

Propaganda, emotional manipulation, paid trolls, automated bots and widespread surveillance are all strangling the idealistic potential of the internet, according to the report. It finds that more than 30 countries employ "opinion shapers" to spread government views.

An increasing number of governments are resorting to blanket shutdowns of communications, especially on mobile phones. National and regional governments are using cheap and convenient off-the-shelf tools for internet surveillance against their political foes.

Al Jazeera spoke with Sanja Kelly, director for internet freedom at Freedom House, who led the project.

Al Jazeera: 'Freedom' feels like a very subjective term. How do you define a free internet?

Sanja Kelly: That would be internet without major government censorship, so it would be internet where the government does not block or filter internet content, anything related to politics or human rights or social issues, as we have seen in many countries around the world.

It is also the internet where governments do not surveil their citizens. And where people are not jailed or attacked for their writings online.

Al Jazeera: Where does freedom on the internet stand right now? Is the internet overall around the world becoming less or more free?

Kelly: Unfortunately, for the seventh consecutive year our study showcases that freedom has been in decline. This year in particular, that decline has been due to very worrisome threats regarding government manipulation of social media.

Governments do this through different means. Through the use of paid pro-government commentators, through computerised bots, through online propaganda, through the spread of fake news and other methods.

A lot of people have been focusing on government manipulation lately, led by the Russian government of elections here in the United States, but that has actually been a global issue, much bigger than what's been happening here.

In fact, according to our study, 18 countries around the world have seen manipulation around election time over the past year alone.

Apart from that, we have identified several other trends that are quite worrisome. One is that more and more governments are using internet shutdowns around elections or around anti-government protests to stifle dissent.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who are being attacked for just posting their anti-government views online.

In fact, in 30 countries out of 65 that we examined, someone was physically attacked, in some cases quite brutally, just for writing on social media about their political beliefs. And in eight countries people were killed for similar issues.

We have also seen more and more governments using cyberattacks against their critics, and that comes in many forms.

So unfortunately this is something that's quite worrisome, and it's important for the international community to take notice.

Al Jazeera: How do you account for the increased repression and restriction? Why is it that nation states are getting better at cracking down on citizens' use of the internet?

Kelly: One reason is that more people are going online. Just a few years ago only a small fraction of each government's population had access to the internet, but now the internet has become how most people communicate, how they conduct business, obtain education, and how they organise themselves politically.

And many governments have now taken notice, and they fear the power of the internet.

So what we have seen is that as this internet penetration has grown in each country, governments - particularly authoritarian governments - are trying to suppress people's free speech and ability to organise.

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