The internet is getting less free year by year with governments passing more laws to restrict online speech and increase monitoring of users.
That's according to New York-based Freedom House which on Friday published its fifth annual study of internet freedom around the globe.
According to the editors, governments have become more open about their efforts to control the internet by "rapidly adopting new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent."
And it's largely thanks to rogue sysadmin Edward Snowden. "Some states are using the revelations of widespread surveillance by the US 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," we're told.
The result of these new laws – where previously monitoring was done in the background – is a fundamental shift in the overall internet, the report argues.
"The growing restrictions at the national level are 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," it adds.
The worst offenders this year? Russia and Turkey, where the internet has become increasingly less free every year for the five years of the study.
According to Freedom House, "since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the government has enacted multiple laws to block online content, including critical or opposition media outlets. Individuals are subject to prosecution and physical violence for their internet activity and increasingly extensive surveillance of ICTs lacks sufficient judicial oversight."
Turkey is on the same trajectory. "Authorities have shut down YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms for months - even years - at a time. Online journalists and social media users are increasingly targeted for assault and prosecution," the report notes.
As for emerging threats, the report warns against data localization – storing users' information within their countries' borders – something that a number of nations and companies have started focusing on since it became clear the NSA was gathering everything it possibly could.
The report doesn't think this is a good trend: "These costly measures could expose user data to local law enforcement," it says. It's at this point that we should highlight that the report is made possible thanks to donations from Google and Yahoo!, as well as the US State Department and the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
Another issues is women's and LGBT rights which have taken a hammering thanks to online harassment. And cybersecurity is also seen as being worn away, with dissidents and human rights organizations increasingly targeted with "sophisticated and personalized malware attacks."
In the good news column, the NSA revelations have given civil society organizations a shot in the arm thanks to much broader awareness of what the authorities are up to. "Ordinary users around the world became more engaged in securing their privacy and freedom of expression online. In select cases, long-running internet freedom campaigns finally garnered the necessary momentum to succeed," it notes.
The report ranked 65 countries with scores from 0 to 100, with 0 representing maximum freedom (fewest controls) and 100 the least possible freedom.
Iran took the top spot for least free internet on the planet, scoring an impressive 89, closely followed by Syria and China with 88 and 87 respectively.
Which is the most free country? Iceland, apparently, with a satisfying 6 points, followed by Estonia (which this week announced it would offer e-citizenship) with 8 points. Canada comes next with 15, then Australia and Germany are tied with 17 points a piece. And as for the Home of Freedom™? The United States comes sixth with 19 points. ®