November 27, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
According to the highly anticipated study recently released by international watchdog organization Freedom House, internet freedom is declining around the globe for the seventh year in a row. Nearly half of the 65 countries evaluated saw declines in internet freedom, while the citizens of only 13 nations saw an uptick. This should alarm anyone who uses the internet, as access is no longer just about fun or staying in touch, but rather about enabling essential functions of daily life. Everyone deserves access to the same online experience, and to a free and open internet devoid of restrictions.
The population of the countries covered in this year’s Freedom on the Net report represent roughly 90 percent of the world’s internet-using population. Some of the biggest abusers of internet freedom may be expected, as they include Russia, Syria, Cuba, Iran, Vietnam and Egypt to name a few, with China being the biggest abuser for the third year in a row. While these rankings may not surprise you, the breadth of the countries impacted certainly should; less than 1/4 of internet users worldwide live in areas with an experience that’s entirely “free.” Even “free” nations like the United States saw a decline in their respective internet freedoms last year. If that’s not bad enough, over the past year we saw the methods “not free” states use to control the internet (and often, to keep their citizens in the dark) replicated in regions around the world. From attitudes towards encryption security practices, to new restrictions on virtual private network use, to manipulation of information posted online, to disruptions to internet service, the overall message is: Things are not getting better, but worse.
Not only are things getting worse, new measures to reduce internet freedoms are being introduced. A standout aspect of this year’s report were the number of new restrictions on VPN services (tools, like our VyprVPN, which are used to circumvent internet censorship). Restrictions to VPN use increased so greatly Freedom House created a new section of the report to cover the topic. Countries including Belarus, China, Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the UAE all stepped up efforts to control VPN access – and they aren’t the only ones. VPNs are restricted in 9 additional countries, or nearly 1/4 of the countries examined for the report. VPNs are an important indicator of internet freedom, as citizens in oppressive states use the tool to gain access to an unrestricted internet, an experience many of us in free nations take for granted. VPNs bypass censorship, allowing people to read articles and access tools that have been restricted, manipulated or outright blocked by the government.
While most countries imparting VPN restrictions are historically oppressive, they seem to be setting a scary precedent. The United States is currently designated as free, meaning there are no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content or serious violations of user rights in the form of unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech. Just this month, however, the United States Justice Department, along with the United Kingdom, France and other European countries that generally enjoy internet freedom, took actions that seem to echo an all-too-familiar pattern. Several “free” nations publicly stated intention to end unbreakable encryption, increase data retention and surveillance, and control what people see online. The year also saw an increase of manipulation of online information (during the recent elections in the US and France, for example) – another activity historically reserved for the more repressive places. As legislators look to enact policy without much understanding or consideration to the consequences, they propose bills that would permanently make the United States a snooping state that collects and uses any and all digital communications without constitutional protections. Laws in the EU and Australia mirror these intentions, as well. Rather than setting an example, nations that have previously been hailed for their internet freedoms are starting down a slippery slope, begging the question — just how soon will “free” nations join the “partly free” or “not free” ranks?
Freedom House is dedicated to measuring freedom across the globe on a number of issues, including Press, Human Rights, General Freedom, and of course the topic at hand – the internet. Golden Frog has followed this report closely since it was first released in 2011. Measuring freedom on the net is so important to everyone, we decided to formally partner with Freedom House this year, a move of which I am quite proud. The results of this report are both enlightening and a call to action for us to step up our fight for internet freedom. I encourage every citizen out there to arm themselves with the knowledge of what is happening around the globe by reading the full report, and make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in the ever-shrinking free internet states.
Sunday Yokubaitis is the president of Golden Frog and is committed to delivering a secure and open internet experience to people around the world.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.