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Freedom House: Internet Continues to Become Less Free


The Internet became less free around the world between June 2015 and May of this year.

That is a finding from a new report called, “Freedom on the Net 2016.” It comes from Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group based in Washington, DC.

Freedom House says its measure of internet freedom fell for the sixth time over the past six years.

2016 Internet freedom report

2016 Internet freedom report

The group reports that government surveillance of social media and messaging tools rose during the 12 months ending in June 2016. It says that in the past two years, governments have gone from secretly plotting to control the internet to openly doing so -- even arresting and beating some users.

The group notes that some governments are taking steps to ban encryption technology and punish users for sharing information officials believe should be banned.

The report says internet users in Estonia, Iceland, and Canada have the most freedom and protection of privacy. It says the most abuses of internet freedom took place in China, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Cuba.

It estimates that more than two-thirds of all internet users live in countries that work to restrict online activity. About 40 percent of the world’s internet users live in just three countries: China, India and the United States.

Adrian Shahbaz is the research manager for the report.

“What the likes of China and Iran have in common is an attempt to gain control over the online sphere within their own countries, and I think we see Russia going towards that direction, which is very troubling...”

Recently, Russia announced its first maximum prison sentence under the country’s anti-extremism laws for a non-violent, political speech.

Shahbaz says Russia now has many laws that limit privacy and free speech.

“There was the passage of a data localization law in previous years, which was implemented in 2015, and that has a very negative effect both on businesses that have their operations in Russia, but also on user privacy in Russia, because all of (the) users’ data must be now stored within Russia...”

The new report found that internet freedom in Ukraine is no better than in Russia.

“In Ukraine, for example, we saw some of the first arrests and even prison sentences for users that are advocating for political causes in a very non-violent way and yet were sentenced based on extremism law.”

The group says China is at the bottom of the internet freedom list because it has made “spreading rumors” or “endangering national security” online as crimes. Freedom House notes that China has worked hard to stop the use of virtual private networks or VPNs, which people use to reach websites blocked by the government.

The report says the highest-rated countries have a free and open internet, very high levels of availability of the internet and strong protections for free speech and privacy.

Freedom House put the United States in fourth place in terms of protecting privacy.

The group said internet freedom has improved in only 14 countries since June of last year. It noted a worsening of conditions in more than half of the 65 countries studied. The biggest declines were in Uganda, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Almost 90 percent of all internet users live in the 65 countries named in the report.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA’s Doug Bernard and Zlatica Hoke reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted their reports for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

surveillance – n. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime

encrypt – v. to electronically change (information) from one form to another especially to hide its meaning

online – adj. done over the Internet

the likes of – expression a similar kind

sphere – n. an area of influence or activity

maximum – adj. the highest number or amount that is possible or allowed

implement – v. to begin to do or use (something, such as a plan); to make (something) active or effective

advocate – v. to support or argue for (a cause, policy, etc.)

rumor – n. information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true

virtual private network – n. a technology that permits internet users in some countries to gain access to websites that are blocked by their government

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