Governments around the world are turning to more diverse and subtle ways of controlling and manipulating the Internet, including hiring armies of bloggers to push propaganda, according to a new report by a human-rights watchdog.
For years, governments have been blocking, censoring, or otherwise seeking to control the flow of information on the Internet, but Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2012” report finds that government methods are diversifying as technology evolves.
“This year’s findings indicate that restrictions on Internet freedom in many countries have continued to grow, though the methods of control are slowly evolving and becoming less visible,” the report’s authors write.
Among those “less visible” means of control identified among the 47 countries surveyed in the report is a trend toward manipulating online content to make it more difficult to discern credible information.
“This practice was in the past largely limited to China and Russia, but over the last year, it has been adopted in more than a quarter of the countries examined,” the report found. For example, officials in Bahrain have hired hundreds of people to pose as regular users and attack the credibility of government critics.
Estonia claimed the top spot in the report’s rankings of the most freedom on the Internet. The United States came in second, with the report noting limited Internet access in some areas and government intrusions in the name of antipiracy enforcement, among other actions.
“The current administration appears committed to maintaining broad surveillance powers with the aim of combating terrorism, child pornography, and other criminal activity,” the report’s authors observe of the Obama administration. Still, the U.S. was well ahead of most of the countries surveyed.
Chronic offenders Iran, Cuba, China, and Syria have the least online freedom, according to the report.
“As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier—but no less dangerous—methods for controlling online conversations,” said Sanja Kelly, the report’s project director.
The concept of Internet freedom gained new life during last year’s “Arab Spring” revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. But after the Internet was credited with helping spark those revolutions, new governments in the countries involved have taken different approaches to Internet freedom.
Egypt was among the countries to shut down Internet access at times during the protests, and the new government has continued many of the same censorship, surveillance, and blocking capabilities. Tunisia, on the other hand, has embraced a much more open Internet than the previous regime, according to Freedom House.