Friday, 22 April 2011

Freedom House Report

UK: Worst of a Good Lot

Sponsored by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), Freedom House just published the report Freedom On The Net 2011.

The good news: UK narrowly escapes relegation from the first division, retaining its Internet freedom status designation of "Free" (up to 30 points) with a nail biting 25 bad boys - up from 2009's (adjusted) total of 23 strikes. Only Italy and South Africa, at 26 points each, fare worse in this division.

Trajectory: Slight Decline

The full league tables are here:

The most worrying aspect, for user rights activists anyway, emerges when these scores are analysed by the three broad UNDEF categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and more disturbingly than those, violations of user rights.

1: Obstacles to Access

The first category assesses barriers to access, both infrastructural and economic; governmental blocking of apps and/or tech; and control over access providers. Clearly there is some room for mitigation in this category, as not all of a network's shortcomings are necessarily planned to be such. The UK however makes no capital of this mitigation, scoring but a single point here - the best performance in fact among all of the (now 37) nations covered by this year's report.

2: Limits on Content

Next the survey considers "content limits" - all forms of censorship, including website filtering and blocking, content manipulation, and the availability, diversity and usage of digital media for social and political activism and news. Here we find the UK scraping its arse along the bottom of the channel, tying with Italy on 8 points, only South Africa worse on 9.

The Internet Watch Foundation comes under particular and extensive criticism for its persistent technical incompetence, absence of clarity and transparency in its blocking and removal criteria and actions, its inadequate appeals process, and lack of any judicial (or even governmental) oversight.

3: Violations of User Rights

That just leaves legal protections, restrictions and prosecutions, surveillance, privacy, imprisonment, and harassment including physical attacks. No surprises here, with the UK emphatically at the bottom of the division on 16 points (second worst is Italy on 12).

The disastrous Digital Economy Act is highlighted, although the interim conclusion on that score states "In a positive development, the newly elected coalition government has promised to review and repeal a number of laws that negatively affect online free expression and privacy." As we have now seen this fail to happen, there must be doubt over the UK's overall "Free" status today.


Internet freedom in the UK is measurably deteriorating year by year, as evidenced by the decline in the "free" status reported by successive Freedom House biennial surveys. The country specific report provides the details:

Many of these reasons have already been well publicised, for example:
  • The expansive restrictions of English libel law are identified as having "...a significant chilling effect on both content producers and ISPs."
  • Further high profile cases, illustrating the frequently ass like nature of the law, are included; such as freedom to tweet your frustration about airport closures through the medium of mad parody, and police sanctioning of cybercafe snooping by proprietors.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that we have already seen the UK's final days at the top table of Internet freedom.

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