The Digital Divide: A Global Perspective from Freedom House

A US-based NPO, Freedom House describes themselves as “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world.” The birth child of Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2014, is the the fifth annual comprehensive study of internet freedom around the globe.


Freedom House evaluated the relative degree of internet control in 65 countries between May 1st 2013 and May 31st 2014 using the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s definition of freedom: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Over 70 researchers were involved in the production of data, nearly all based in the countries they evaluated. The team of researchers examined internet laws and practices, tested the accessibility of websites, and interviewed a wide range of sources.

Freedom House ranked governmental and nongovernmental bodies on three variables: obstacles to access, violation of user rights, and limits on content. Limits on content included and social media and apps blocked, political and social content restricted and bloggers and internet communication technology (ICT) user arrests. They then derived a “freedom on the net” cumulative total and a qualitative freedom status for each country surveyed.

Censorship Explained

Freedom on the Net focused largely on the exchange of news and political communications and user privacy rights and freedom from repercussions for online activity. The index allows for restrictions to freedom of expression if implemented in moderation and in accordance international human rights standards. The restrictions must have transparent censorship policies with avenues for appeal.

The authors of Freedom on the Net 2014 describe an emerging global culture of government whereby leaders legitimize existing oppression by criminalizing online dissent, rather than what they call the historical “behind-the scene approach to internet control.” As a result, an unprecedented number of arrests were made from 2013-2014 in response to internet activity. Online media outlets are increasingly being pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests to compile data, which poses exposure risks.

Although documented physical violence has decreased since 2013, government critics and human rights defenders in 22 countries were still subjected to beatings and other types of physical violence as a result of their online activity during 2014. The Hard Facts Global internet freedom is in decline for the fourth consecutive year, a finding that is inversely correlated with an increasing number of countries introducing aggressive online censorship and monitoring practices that target individual users. 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalize online speech, increased government content control or expanded government surveillance capabilities. Arrests for online communications regarding political and social issues online were documented in 38 of the 65 countries, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, where detentions occurred in 10 of the 11 countries examined.

Pressure on independent new websites dramatically increased; Dozens of citizen journalists were attacked while reporting conflict in Syria and antigovernment protests in Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine. Other governments increased licensing and regulation for web platforms Free Countries North American and South American countries ranked well; Canada and the United States both ranked “free,” with cumulative totals of 15 and 19, respectively. The “Free” South American countries were Columbia, Brazil, and Argentina. Australia and Germany ranked between Canada and the U.S. with 17 restrictions. Other “free” countries included South Africa, Kenya, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Hungary, Armenia, Georgia, Japan, and the Philippines. Iceland and Estonia lead the pack with a total of 6 and 9.

Partially Free

“Partially Free” countries were more globally dispersed than free countries and include several Asian countries (Myanmar, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Bangladesh), African countries (Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan), and Middle Eastern countries (India, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon). Of the 65 countries surveyed, 36 countries evidenced a negative trajectory since May 2013, with the most significant declines in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.“Partially-free” South American countries included Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico.

“Not Free”

Iran topped the list of “Not Free” countries with 89 obstacles to access, limits on content and user violations, while China ranked a close second with a score of 87. Other “Not Free” countries include Cuba, Belarus, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Bahrain, The Gambia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Thailand. According to the report, Iran, Syria, and China were the world’s worst abusers of internet freedom overall.

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[Feature image courtesy of Freedom House]