Last year technology helped more people exercise their rights, but in 2011 more countries restricted access to the Internet or used technology to repress, according to the State Department's annual human rights report released on Thursday.
"New connective technologies spread news of citizen activism, and political change, around the world," the report noted. "People continued to find innovative ways to use technology to break down the walls of fear and isolation that undemocratic governments erected to try to keep their populations quiescent. Yet repressive regimes also used those same technologies to spy on their own citizens for the purposes of silencing dissent."
That paradox played out in Vietnam, Iran, and Ethiopia, where governments restricted access to the Internet and blocked certain websites. The human rights situation deteriorated in China, where the government "exercised tight control over Internet access and content," according to the report.
"People deserve the same rights online as off," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an event unveiling the report. She said the U.S. is continuing its efforts to expand access to technology and defend Internet freedom.
But State Department officials struck a pragmatic tone about the potential of new technology to help protect human rights.
"Technology is a platform, not a substitute for political organizing, advocacy, or persuasion," the report's authors wrote. "The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did."