In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Freedom on the Web is down — everywhere

Watching a newly released map of Internet freedoms around the world, I couldn’t help being surprised by the fact that Latin America’s two biggest countries, Brazil and Mexico, are described as only “partly free.”

As a frequent traveler to both countries, it looked weird. Judging from the wide array of anti-government views that one sees in Brazil and Mexico’s media, it’s hard to believe that their governments practice censorship, or engage in other threats to the free flow of information on the Internet.

But the map on the cover of the massive 881-page report, “Freedom on the Net, 2013,” by Freedom House, the Washington, D.C., political rights advocacy group, paints Brazil and Mexico’s territories in yellow, the same color it uses to portray other “partly free” countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

The study of freedom on the Internet in 60 countries found that only 17 are “free,’’ including the United States, Germany, Japan, South Africa and Argentina; 29 are “partly free,” including Brazil, Mexico, India, Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador; and 14 are “non-free,” including China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Cuba.

Asked for an explanation, the Freedom House report’s lead authors told me that the annual report rates countries based among other things on their obstacles to Internet access, their limits on Internet content, and their harassment or legal persecution of Internet users. Both Brazil and Mexico did worse this year in some or all of these categories, they said.

In Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff is calling for an international system to regulate the Internet following the revelations of U.S. spying on her country, there have been growing restrictions on online speech due to a new electoral law. The law prohibits the media from publishing content that can be considered offensive to candidates for three months prior to an election.

While there is no evidence that Brazil’s government censors or filters the Internet like China and Cuba do, the Brazilian government frequently asks Google, Twitter and other social media companies to remove content, the reports’ authors say.

In the months preceding the October 2012 elections, there were 235 court orders and three executive requests asking Google to remove content that violated the electoral law, more than any other country in the world. Brazil also ranks among the world’s top three countries that asked for removal of content from Twitter, with 16 court orders issued in the second half of 2012, the report says.

In Mexico’s case, the “partly free” description is largely because the country continues to be one of the most hostile environments in the world for journalists and bloggers, who are mostly targeted by drug cartels and organized crime.

In addition, there are good reasons to suspect government snooping on Internet users following the secret purchase of about $355 million worth of online spying equipment by the Mexican army. The spyware technology was largely funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics, and allows pinpointing the location of callers and real-time monitoring of text messages and Internet navigation histories, the Freedom House report says.

In Venezuela, the government is directly targeting and often shutting down opposition websites and harassing opposition bloggers. There were disruptions of Internet service at critical times during the April 14 presidential elections and the subsequent recount vote.

In the United States, while access to the Internet remains relatively free compared to the rest of the world, the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal widespread government surveillance on phone records and Internet activities.

My opinion: It may be unfair to place Brazil and Mexico in the same “partly free” category as Venezuela and several other countries where the governments shut down opposition websites or harass critical bloggers.

Ironically, the Freedom House annual report — which was partly funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department — may be too generous with Venezuela and comparatively too harsh with Brazil and Mexico. Perhaps it needs to include more colors in its map, to reflect the various shades of “free” and “partly free” countries.

But the report is a welcome reminder of how vulnerable Internet freedoms are. Reading it left me with a sense of alarm: Regardless of whether countries are classified as free or partly free, it’s pretty clear that Internet freedoms and privacy on the Web in most places — including Brazil, Mexico and the United States — are deteriorating rapidly.

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