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Report: Governments have used Snowden's whistleblowing as cover to harm Internet freedoms

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 9, 2014

From The News Desk

A new report claims the international backlash to the global surveillance programs revealed by news organizations which received classified documents from Edward Snowden has resulted in the further erosion of Internet freedoms in countries around the world. The report was published by Freedom House, an independent group dedicated to advancing global liberties, and based on its analysis of new laws, arrests, and other government activities between May of 2013 and 2014.

"Some states are using the revelations of widespread surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) as an excuse to augment their own monitoring capabilities, frequently with little or no oversight, and often aimed at the political opposition and human rights activists," Freedom House says in the report's summary. "Growing restrictions at the national level are also changing the nature of the global Internet, transforming it from a worldwide network into a fragmented mosaic, with both the rules and the accessible content varying from one country to another."

The report claims that Internet freedom worsened in 36 of the 65 countries it examined, with those affected ranging from Russia and the United Kingdom to Syria and the United States, often as the result of efforts to quash dissent and penalize both digital activities and communications. Another 12 countries saw an overall increase in Internet freedoms; others stayed about the same. (The least and most free countries -- Iran and Iceland, respectively -- also remained unchanged.)

Two main problems have become worse over the last year: increased efforts to force companies to store information within a country, allowing its government to assert more control over how that data is used and accessed; and the arrest of citizens who share something with which their government disagrees, which often encourages other citizens to censor themselves in response. Both problems allow governments to misrepresent their commitment to Internet freedoms.

The report also confirms what others have suggested: citizens are taking their freedom into their own hands by using new security tools and focusing more on their privacy. Ipsos conducted a survey earlier this year which showed that even though many people haven't heard of Snowden or the programs he revealed, those who have are now more aware of their privacy and security.

So on the one hand, the disclosures have given some governments the cover they need to reduce their citizens' Internet freedoms without fear of public backlash. On the other, they have also given many people the push they needed to care more about their digital activities and liberties. (And if this were a fictional being with three hands I'd note that they've made Americans more suspect of their own communications and how the information they share is gathered and used.)

The net result is a constant, but increasingly important, struggle between the two groups. While this might seem like a small problem -- it's amazing how many people still seem to think the Internet isn't a fundamental part of modern life -- it's actually emblematic of the fight for all personal liberties.

"In [...] a growing number of [...] countries, the internet is a crucial medium not just for personal communication or news and information, but for political participation and civic engagement," Freedom House concludes in the summary of its report. "The struggle for internet freedom is consequently inseparable from the struggle for freedom of every kind."

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]