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Internet freedom

April 21, 2011

A Freedom House study examined the state of the Internet in 37 countries. The report found that while Estonia was atop the list, Iran came out on the bottom, as its Internet is highly restricted.

People sat at computers in an internet cafe in Iran
The study examined 37 countries worldwideImage: AP

In a new 410-page report published earlier this week, Freedom House, an American NGO, Estonia has been named the country with the highest level of Internet freedom. The United States placed second, and Germany came in third. In the report, an international team of researchers looked at 37 countries around the world to examine how open and free the Internet is in terms of filtering, censorship and other forms of repression online. The study examined both democratic countries, like the US, Germany and Australia, but also Zimbabwe, China and Belarus. In fact, the study found that Iran was the least free country, as it has high levels of opressive policies, like intimidating and even in some cases jailing people for what they write online.

Deutsche Welle spoke with Robert Guerra, the director of the Internet Freedom project at Freedom House, and Sarah Cook, one of the report's editors.

Deutsche Welle: Robert, can you tell us a little bit about how this project got started? Why do this now?

Robert Guerra: Well, this project is actually the second report. We did a first pilot study in 2009. The reason we did that report was to really get some metrics. Everyone's talking about freedom of expression online, and Internet freedom. But we wanted to have some metrics just to see where countries are, just to see if they're getting better or getting worse. The planning for this project started about a year ago. Little did we know that the world was going to change in such a significant way and what role the Internet was going to play. Our timing was just lucky, more than anything else. The second report was funded primarily by the UN, through the UN Democracy Fund as well as Google, who wanted to make sure that we included a larger variety of countries, including freer countries that the UN doesn't normally look at.

Sarah, I have this report in front of me and I'm looking at a chart on Page 17, and it says "Freedom on the Net Total," "Obstacles to Access," "Limits on Content," and so forth. How did you choose and evaluate these criteria?

Sarah Cook: In 2008, we began creating a methodology to measure Internet freedom and in some ways, to define what is Internet freedom. And we chose three main baskets. One is "Obstacles to Access," one is "Limits on Content," and one is "Violations of User Rights." The idea is to capture the full range of ways in which Internet freedom might be obstructed.

World map
The report found that Iran was the most repressive onlineImage: DW

In "Obstacles to Access," we look at access to the actual technology as well as the regulatory environment and government-imposed restrictions on connectivity. In "Limits on Content," we look at the various forms of censorship including blocking but also pro-active manipulation of the online information sphere by governments. And then in "Violations of User Rights," we look at the legal sphere, legal harassment, imprisonment, surveillance as well as cyber attacks. Under this methodology we have about 100 indicators that we look at, and we examine for each country, how they fit in, and what the situation is in each country, based on these criteria.

The country that comes out on top of this chart is Estonia. And I think a lot of people who read this report may not be familiar with Estonia and Estonia's Internet history. Does it surprise you that Estonia came out on top?

Sarah Cook: Actually Estonia was the best performer in the last edition as well, so it wasn't entirely surprising that Estonia would be at the top. What's incredible about Estonia is that - partly because it's such a small society - is that it's extremely wired, as well as the way in which the government has used e-governance in a very creative way that draws more people to get online and to use the Internet.

One of the things that happened in Estonia in 2007 was that it was hit with very very severe cyber-attacks that brought down big parts of the Internet infrastructure, and the banking, and so forth during a short period. And that hurt Estonia's score last time around, because of the impact it had on Internet freedom for people around the country. In 2009-2010, the period that we're looking at, that kind of cataclysmic event didn't take place. So that helped propel Estonia to remain as the top scorer.

The study was funded by the United Nations and Google

How much of a qualitative difference is there really between Estonia and the US, that by your rubric, have only a difference of three points? And again, the difference between the US and Germany is three points as well.

Sarah Cook: One of the things with this methodology is that you can really see the different strengths and weaknesses of different countries. In the United States you have certain concerns about privacy and surveillance, particularly after the passage of the PATRIOT Act. You also have challenges, in terms of - given the size of the country - connecting everyone, particularly in rural areas, to broadband. So those are some of the differences say, between the United States and Estonia.

With Germany, similarly, there were more restrictions in terms of blocking certain content related to Nazism or hate speech that you perhaps wouldn't find in the United States, and also issues related to defamation, we see in a lot of European countries. And in places like Australia, compared to the United States, as well as several incidents related to surveillance. So those were some of the small differences between these countries, taken into consideration that overall, from a global perspective, the Internet is quite free, although there's always room for improvement.

Despite your efforts and the efforts of European, North American, and other interested governments and other interested parties in pushing for increased Internet freedom, what is there to stop countries like China, Russia and also Iran from blocking the Internet? As I'm sure you saw this past weekend, there was an announcement from the Iranian government saying that they wanted to build the ‘halal Internet,' whatever that means. If countries do want to cut off access, or increase filtering access, is there any kind of leverage that democratic and liberal democracies have in pushing for more freedom?

Robert Guerra
'Internet freedom starts at home,' Guerra saysImage: Flickr/Joi

Robert Guerra: I think there are two things. Clearly what we've seen over the last couple of years is the power of the Internet. And what we've seen is that countries that are not supportive of the Internet are working together, sharing information to try to push back. That's very clear. We see cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela. We see the Iranians as well. We have the emergence of Freedom 2.0 and the reaction of Repression 2.0. We need to see this as more than a human rights issue. I think that a lot of human rights activists have been pushing the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere. And we know that, at times, it's not necessarily too functional. Some of the approaches have been to see this as a trade issue. The other thing is that countries that have been supportive have not been out there as much as they should.

Internet freedom starts at home. The fact that the FBI and folks in Congress want to increase the amount of surveillance and lawful intercept that they do here, does not bode well. It sets a terrible example - or it sets a good example for others in the region. So let's get it right at home first and that's the best example. So I think that what we've been trying to do is trying to show that there's a clear linkage between actions at home - they take time. At the end, we have to realize that the great value of the Internet is the economic value. It's a huge part of the economy in parts of the world and for economic growth could be severely limited if the infrastructure changes. If it's blocked we will not have the Internet that we have now and that potential will be gone. And let's use that as an argument. I think that's a powerful one that hasn't been used as much in the past.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Andreas Illmer