Governments around the world expanded surveillance laws during the past year, and it is so far unclear whether recent legislation passed by the U.S. will resolve a chilling decline in America’s Internet freedom, according to an annual study that tracks international digital rights.
Controversies including broad government surveillance and calls by law enforcement to limit the encryption of consumer data have unbalanced America’s reputation as a leader in Internet freedom in recent years. This year’s study from advocacy group Freedom House saw the U.S. rank sixth out of 65 countries assessed – the same position it held in 2014 after being demoted from fourth place in 2013 and second place in 2012.
The study also scores countries’ digital rights on a scale of zero (most free) to 100 (least free). The U.S. went from scores of 13 in 2011, 12 in 2012 and 17 in 2013 to a score of 19 in 2014 – the same ranking it currently holds.
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Source: Freedom House
Internet freedom declined overall around the globe this year, the report said, but the rankings changed little as nations mainly consolidated restrictions on digital rights. Northern European countries retained top ranks for Internet freedom, with Iceland staying in first place, followed by Estonia. Canada came in third place for having the most digital rights, while Germany took fourth place, demoting Australia to fifth place – in part because Australia enacted legislation expanding surveillance this past year.
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China ranked as the worst offender against digital rights in the study, followed by Syria, Iran, Ethiopia and Cuba. These nations were ranked lowly due in part to their repression of free speech online and their surveillance efforts.
The study factors in events that occurred between June 2014 and the end of May 2015, meaning that it took into account net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission but not the USA Freedom Act, which aims to limit surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
Freedom House views the net neutrality rules as a boost to digital rights because they call for Internet service providers and the government not to disrupt wireless traffic, Laura Reed, a research analyst with the organization, tells U.S. News.
“It is yet to be seen whether the recently passed surveillance reforms will affect government spying efforts,” Reed says. “We do see potential for improvement there.”
Freedom House is also concerned by calls from the FBI that tech firms like Apple and Google should not encrypt their services, which can prevent users’ data from being accessed following a government request. Limits on such encryption have increased in democracies and dictatorships alike during the past year, creating what the report says is a threat to personal privacy and a boon to surveillance efforts.
“We are waiting to see where the U.S. is going to come out on the encryption debate,” Reed says.
Access to the Internet also played a role in the report, and the U.S. lagged in that area behind nations like Japan and the U.K., despite having a higher score for digital rights than those countries. Freedom House praised efforts by the FCC to expand online access, including through its opposition to a proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Reed says the merger would have lowered incentives for the combined company to offer faster connection speeds for lower prices.
“There are some Internet service providers that have a monopoly on certain regional markets in the U.S. and have few incentives to provide better service,” she says. “Internet access in the U.S. is strong, but it could be better.”