We live in an age where we’re increasingly conscious of our information being stolen or leaked through the internet, so it’s not unreasonable to worry that someone might be watching us when we go online. According to a new report released this week, worrying about how our data is being used and monitored isn’t paranoia – it’s increasingly likely to be a reality. For the ninth consecutive year, access to privacy and free speech online has decreased according to the annual ‘Freedom On The Net’ report. 

To compile the report, which is provided as a public service, a number of different metrics are used to award 65 developed nations a ‘freedom score’ out of one hundred. Access to international news networks and social media are included within those metrics, as are the monitoring and observation tools known to be employed by those nations to monitor the activities of their citizens. 

The report limits itself to activities that the authors of the report amount to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. It would not, for example, include casino or mobile slots websites, which are blocked in some countries. Whether or not citizens are permitted to play mobile slots or gambling games is a matter of law rather than freedom, and so don’t affect a county’s score. This is why Canada ranks so highly on the list, despite mobile slots websites being blocked within the country. Access to pornographic material is also exempt from the study for the same reasons. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China has been identified as the worst-performing country in the world when it comes to allowing citizens free and unfettered access to the internet. Given the government’s well-known pro-censorship attitude, most people would have expected them to feature somewhere toward the top of the list. The more worrying and surprising finding is that almost half of the countries that have been assessed are trending downward with their overall score compared to last year, with the United States of America seeing its score decrease for the third consecutive year. It’s thought that new laws that have been introduced recently to allow authorities greater oversight of social media users are responsible for the downgrade. 

China also topped the list last year and has further cracked down on internet use during the past twelve months in response to civil unrest within Hong Kong. Pro-democracy protests have been ongoing in the area for some time, and the government has been keen to prevent the internet from being used as a tool to organize and co-ordinate the protests. In general, the majority of countries toward the bottom of the list have also experienced civil unrest and introduced curbs on internet freedom for the same reasons. Brazil, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, and Sudan have also been heavily downgraded, while Iraq and Syria are directly above China at the foot of the table. China’s score is a mere ten out of one hundred. 

The most improved nation is Ethiopia, which is undergoing a program of social reform under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following his 2018 election. He’s overseen the unblocking of more than 250 websites during his tenure in office so far and also introduced policies aimed at reducing the level of government intrusion on the browsing habits of civilians. As a result, his country has jumped up to 28 points. They still have much more to do, but they’re trending in the right direction. 

At the other end of the scale is Iceland, which didn’t prosecute one single citizen last year for comments made on the internet. Internet connectivity within the European nation is close to one hundred percent, users’ rights are enshrined in law, and content restrictions are virtually unheard of. With a score of 95 out of 100, they’ve beaten Estonia into second place by a single point. Canada is fourth with a score of 87, followed by Germany on 80, and the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Australia sharing fifth place on 77 points. 

The most worrying statistics to come out of the report are those which relate to punishments for misuse of the internet. 31 of the countries who were assessed have physically punished citizens for comments made on the internet, and 47 out of the 65 arrested users for making religious, social, or political comments. Twenty of the countries temporarily or permanently blocked social media and news websites during the year, while all telecommunication networks were shut down by the governments of seventeen countries. Generally speaking, such shutdowns occur either during the aforementioned periods of civil unrest or immediately before an election is due to take place. 

At no point does the report insinuate that the Icelandic model for internet freedom is the most desirable. There are circumstances in which a country may be within its rights to arrest or investigate a civilian for comments posted online – for example, when a potential terrorist threat has been identified, or when a threat of physical violence has been made. It’s inevitable that some degree of oversight is required to ensure the safety and protection of civilian populations. The challenge for governments, however, is that such oversight and protection doesn’t become censorship and snooping. None of us relish the thought that our private Facebook or Twitter messages might be accessed and read by government officials, and nor should we be profiled based on the news sources we engage with. The question of internet privacy and internet neutrality isn’t going to go away any time soon and might be asked louder in the years to come. 

Some people will take the stance that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, but in doing so, they fail to appreciate the principle of the argument, which is about secrecy versus privacy. If someone is able to go to the toilet without anybody else knowing, then they are being permitted secrecy. If they are allowed to go to the toilet with the door closed, then they are allowed privacy. If someone insists that the door has to remain open, then they are allowed nothing at all. It’s privacy rather than secrecy that groups such as Freedom on the Net are seeking to protect. 

For those interested, India finished in nineteenth place on the list, with a score of 55.