Only 17% of the world’s internet users are free

Ruth C. | October 10, 2023

According to data presented by the Atlas VPN team, only 17% of internet users have access to a truly free internet. Generally, conditions online for human rights have deteriorated for the 13th year, with the highest declines occurring in Iran, followed by the Philippines, Belarus, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Internet users in China suffer the most, facing the most severe content limitation and government censorship for the ninth year in a row. In contrast, Icelandic users enjoy the most online liberty worldwide for the fifth consecutive year.

The data is based on the Freedom on the Net 2023 report released by Freedom House, a human rights watchdog organization. It annually reviews the state of internet freedom in 70 countries — or 88% of the world’s internet users — using a set of methodology questions that examine barriers to access, content limits, and abuses of user rights. This year’s edition overviews developments between June 2022 and May 2023.

Each country then receives a numerical score from 100 (the most free) to 0 (the least free), which serves as the basis for an internet freedom status designation of FREE (100-70 points), PARTLY FREE (69-40 points), or NOT FREE (39-0 points).

As per the findings, 36% of internet users worldwide do not have access to internet freedom, characterized by high infrastructural, economic, and political obstacles to access; limits on content, including the filtering and blocking of websites; as well as violations on the right to freedom of expression using legal and extralegal repercussions. In the most extreme cases, people are physically assaulted or killed for their online commentary — astonishingly, there are reports of such cases in 41 countries.

Elsewhere, the internet is partially free to 35% of its users. Countries such as Hungary and Colombia are good examples of this category. Both boast open internet access but also face threats, such as cyberattacks on media outlets or policies that impede the operations of opposition groups, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Meanwhile, only 17% of the global internet population enjoys the internet without significant restrictions. Researchers observed little-to-no critical internet controls exerted in Costa Rica, Germany, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, the United States, and Taiwan, to name a few. 

Websites blocked by governments reach record-high

Researchers observed that conventional forms of censorship are becoming increasingly popular among repressive governments, especially in cases where AI-powered moderation tools fail to keep up with a sudden surge of criticism and dissent. 

The most popular form of such internet control was the forced removal of content employed across 45 countries. Speech that concentrates on political, social, or religious topics was especially targeted despite being protected according to international human rights standards. 

Furthermore, a record-high 41 national governments blocked websites hosting similar content. For example, the Belarusian government, which has aided Moscow’s military aggression, has blocked over 9,000 websites, including several independent news sites maintained by Belarusian journalists working in exile.

The report also states that 22 governments regulated or outright banned content on social media platforms to silence dissent. One example of this was observed during nationwide protests across Iran in September 2022. Iran intermittently restricted internet connectivity and blocked WhatsApp and Instagram, the only international social media platforms accessible in the country. In addition, 19 countries also banned VPN tools to prevent bypassing such censorship.

During the study’s coverage period, 16 countries restricted internet connectivity. One was Sudan, where authorities limited internet access in the aftermath of the 2021 military coup, cutting off communication routes for the opposition and hiding evidence of human rights violations perpetrated against them.

With everyday life becoming increasingly digitized, an opportunity arises for governments that seek to control what their people can hear, say, and see online. Civil society and policymakers must band together in pursuit of safeguards needed to reverse the decline of internet freedom and protect digital privacy.

Ruth C.

Ruth C.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. Interested in cybercrime, online security, and privacy-related topics.

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