Problematic new laws are emerging in democratic and authoritarian countries alike. Democratic states have struggled to draft legislation that adequately balances legitimate priorities like counterterrorism with the protection of citizens’ rights online. Countries with effective democratic institutions allow for public consultation and correction when laws infringe on fundamental freedoms.
New laws criminalised online dissent and legitimised over broad surveillance and data collection, while more people are being arrested for legitimate online activities than ever before.
Authoritarian and democratic leaders alike believe the internet is ripe for regulation and passed laws that strengthen official powers to police online content, said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net. The scramble to legislate comes at the expense of user rights, as lawmakers deliberately or misguidedly neglect privacy protections and judicial oversight.
More people are being arrested for their internet activity than ever before, online media outlets are increasingly pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests for data or deletions.
Between May 2013 and May 2014, 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalise legitimate forms of speech online, increase government powers to control content, or expand government surveillance capabilities.
In Ethiopia, a new cybersecurity law states that social-media outlets, blogs, and other internet-related media have great capabilities to instigate war, to damage the countrys image, and create havoc in the economic atmosphere of the country.
The law empowers the government to investigate computers, networks, internet sites, radio and television stations, and social-media platforms for any possible damage to the countrys social, economic, political, and psychological well-being.
In the Middle East, Jordan broadened its definition of illegal terrorist activities to include acts that could damage the countrys relations with foreign countries, including the online publication of critical commentary on foreign leaders.
In Kenya, a new information and communications law signed in December 2013 gave the government-appointed regulator vaguely defined new powers, including the authority to impose punitive fines on both journalists and media houses for alleged ethical violations.
Content blocking without a court order: Measures that empowered government agencies to block content without judicial oversight and with little or no transparency were especially notable in five countries-Turkey, Thailand, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Italy.
In Turkey, after audio recordings implicating highlevel officials in a corruption scandal were leaked on YouTube and SoundCloud, new legal measures empowered the state regulator to block websites without a court order in cases that violate privacy or are considered “Discriminatory or insulting.” The regulator later blocked YouTube to suppress an unverified recording of a national security meeting. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, has vowed to “Wipe out Twitter” and called social media the “Worst menace to society.”
In Thailand, judicial oversight is legally required when web content is blocked, but court orders from the past year undermined that requirement, allowing information officials to block web pages that are “Similar” to those specified in the order without seeking separate permission. The situation worsened following the May 2014 coup, as military leaders issued censorship directives under martial law, blocking more than 200 pages in the week after they seized power.
In late 2013, for example, the research and advocacy group Greatfire.org began hosting content that is banned by the Chinese government on “unblockable” domains owned by Amazon and other major companies, which officials cannot risk censoring because of their large commercial footprint within China.
Restrictions targeting expression on social media were particularly draconian in Vietnam. Decree 72, enacted in September 2013, extended prohibitions against political or social commentary from blogs to all social-networking sites.
Criminal defamation laws are especially problematic given the ease with which casual remarks on social-media platforms can be targeted by officials for reprisal. In January 2014, a Zimbabwean user was arrested for calling President Robert Mugabe “an idiot” on his Facebook page.