The decision by a Russian court earlier this month to shut down the professional social network LinkedIn came right on cue. The court ruling coincided with the publication of “Freedom on the Net 2016,” an annual report on internet freedom published by the human rights organization Freedom House.
As noted in the report, freedom on the internet has come under growing stress, having declined globally for the sixth straight year—and Russia is among the most serious offenders.
In “Freedom on the Net 2016,” Russia ranks as “not free,” coming in 52nd out of the 65 countries surveyed, right behind Sudan and quite a few steps behind Venezuela and Turkey. Perhaps worse, Russia ranks among the five countries with the largest drop in internet freedom over the past five years.
What caused this decline? Primarily, a massive government crackdown on dissent following the re-election of President Vladimir Putin to a third term in 2012, and the public protests that followed. This crackdown has resulted in ever tighter controls and penalties for Russian internet users.
The LinkedIn ruling fits right into this trend, and it sends a message to other social media sites. Russia has 6 million LinkedIn users, whose data is being held on servers outside Russia. Having personal information stored outside Russia (and therefore out of the reach of Russian authorities) is against Russian law, which mandates that only servers in Russia can hold the personal data of Russian internet users.
The Russian government is far from unhappy with the court ruling. In the weeks preceding the ruling, the government had actually begun denying some of Russia’s 6 million LinkedIn users access to their accounts.
Globally, the promise of the internet as a tool for greater individual freedom and empowerment is coming under stiff challenge. This seriously affects the two-thirds of internet users who live in countries where censorship is government policy.
Internet users are facing unprecedented penalties like long prison sentences and torture for activism on the net, writings on controversial topics, and even political satire.
Even new security efforts to combat radicalism and terrorist activity online can play right into the hands of autocratic regimes as they seek greater control over their populations.
Increasingly, services like Telegram and WhatsApp are being targeted by governments because they can spread information quickly and securely. Some Internet services like Skype are also coming under pressure as they undercut the traditional business model of national telecommunications companies by providing free communication tools to consumers.
“Freedom on the Net 2016” registers a decline in internet freedom in over half of the 65 countries surveyed. As many as 34 countries saw declines in their score, with China rated dead last as its Great Firewall becomes ever more impenetrable for Chinese internet users.
Many others in the “not free” category won’t surprise: Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Cuba, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Cambodia, to name some of the more obvious.
Internet freedom remains a U.S. foreign policy priority. We spend an estimated $20 million per year through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose anti-censorship division is responsible for devising ways around foreign censors.
Any U.S. communications strategy must support these efforts. And where internet access is being suppressed, it is also essential that radio and satellite TV remain a key part of the U.S. strategy.