Web report: Online surveillance and censorship are getting worse

Mass online surveillance and censorship of what people see on the web appear to be getting worse, according to the latest Web Index report from Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation. These trends, along with the paucity of net neutrality rules around the world, have led the web inventor to call for the internet to be made a basic human right.

“That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live,” Berners-Lee said in a statement. “In an increasingly unequal world, the web can be a great leveller — but only if we hardwire the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, affordable access and net neutrality into the rules of the game.”

The Web Index aims to quantify the web’s impact on countries’ social, economic and political progress. Produced annually since 2012, the index provides rankings that, over time, make it easier to spot trends. This year, the trends aren’t looking so hot. In 2013, the foundation’s researchers found that 63 percent of the 86 countries listed in the index had privacy safeguards that were weak to non-existent. A year on, that figure has risen to 83 percent.

According to the report, the rise is partly because revelations about mass surveillance programs and their associated legal regimes have taught us more than we knew before about what’s actually going on. “However, there is also evidence that due process safeguards for citizens are being progressively dismantled,” the report stated, “even as the capability and appetite of governments to spy on us is expanding.”

It continued:

The companies that report on government demands for user data have documented worldwide increases in such orders — between January–June 2013 and January–June 2014, [company]Twitter[/company] reported a 78% increase; [company]Google[/company], a 14% increase; and [company]Facebook[/company], a 30% increase. [company]Microsoft[/company] reported 30% growth in the number of accounts affected by secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests between 2011 and 2013, while Yahoo said it was “troubled” by a 67% increase in accounts subject to FISA orders between the first and last half of 2013.

The report noted that many countries don’t allow disclosure of statistics about interception warrants and metadata access, including the U.K., Germany, India, South Africa, Turkey, the Netherlands and Ireland. It also highlighted several new laws that actually expand state surveillance and weaken privacy safeguards, including DRIPA in the U.K., France’s real-time web spying law, and laws in Australia and South Africa.

Meanwhile, new censorship drives in countries such as Turkey have seen the percentage of the 86 countries found to be “blocking politically or socially sensitive web content to a moderate or extreme degree” had gone up from 30 to 38, year-on-year.

Handily, the foundation has provided an interactive map demonstrating the severity of online surveillance and censorship around the world:

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The 2014 Web Index provided other findings as well:

  • In three out of five countries surveyed, the web and social media had a significant effect on citizen action.
  • Only a quarter or so of the countries have clear net neutrality rules or rules against political discrimination in internet traffic management.
  • In around three-quarters of the countries, there is a failure to tackle online gender-based violence.
  • 4.3 billion people – almost 60 percent of the world’s population – cannot get online at all, and over 1.8 billion “face severe violations of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression when they go online.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week Berners-Lee said Europe’s right to be de-linked “seems to be dangerous” at the moment. He said it was right that false information should be deleted, but accurate information should remain untouched because of free-speech and history-related reasons.