America: Land of the Free, Home of the Internet

Despite controversial piracy bills, the U.S. is second-best in the world when it comes to Internet freedom, according to a new report.

by / September 26, 2012
Image from Shutterstock

Amid ongoing discussions of cybersecurity, Net neutrality and censorship, Internet freedom in the U.S. is the second highest in the world, according to a recent report titled Freedom on the Net 2012. Watchdog group Freedom House released the report on Sept. 24 with detailed analysis of Internet freedom in 47 countries. The 662-page report rates each country’s Internet freedom based on the degree of impediment to Internet access, limits on content and user rights violations.

While the report found that Internet restriction in many countries (e.g., Bahrain, Pakistan, Ethiopia) continues to grow through politically motivated surveillance and limits on content, other countries (e.g., Tunisia, Burma, Georgia) have made great progress.

The report offers detailed analysis gathered by 50 Freedom House researchers, most of which were stationed in the countries they were studying. By researching Internet laws and practices, testing the accessibility of select websites, and interviewing a wide range of sources, researchers rated each country on a scale from zero to 100, where a score of zero represents absolute freedom online.

Tunisia showed the greatest progress, improving its ranking from 81 in 2011 to 46 in 2012. When President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s autocracy fell on Jan. 14, 2011, the dictator’s 23-year rule ended and much of the censorship apparatus that had impeded Internet freedom dissipated.

The United States received a score of 12, bested only by Estonia, which received a score of 10. The top 10 countries (with their scores) are Estonia (10), the U.S. (12), Germany (15), Australia (18), Hungary (19), Italy (23), the Philippines (23), the U.K. (25), Argentina (26), and South Africa (26).

Iran scored the least free with a score of 90, followed by Cuba (86), China (85), Syria (83), Uzbekistan (77), Ethiopia (75), Burma (75), Vietnam (73), Saudi Arabia (71), and  Bahrain (71).

By region, Western Europe is considered the most free, according to the report, with an “85 percent free” designation. The Americas follow as 71 percent free, the Asia-Pacific region is 44 percent free, Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia is 28 percent free, Sub-Saharan Africa is 12 percent free, and the Middle East and North Africa are 2 percent free.

While the U.S. ranks better than most for freedom online, public access to the Internet lags behind many industrialized countries with an Internet penetration of 78 percent.

Recent attempts by Congress to combat piracy, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act, though squashed by public outcry, threaten Internet freedom in the U.S., according to the report. An estimated 10 million signatures to petitions, 3 million emails to legislators, and 115,000 sites blacking out or going dim in protest of those bills contributed to stopping them. “Both of these bills, if passed, would have suppressed legitimate, unquestionably legal speech and would pose a threat to the infrastructure of the Internet,” the report reads.

Despite such bills, Internet access in the U.S. remains “relatively free compared with the rest of the world,” the report reads. “Users face few restrictions on their ability to access and publish content online. The courts have consistently held that federal and state constitutional prohibitions against government regulation of speech apply to material published on the Internet. The law also protects online service providers from liability for infractions committed by their users, a policy that fosters business models that permit open discourse and the free exchange of information.”

Freedom on the Net 2012 is the third report in a series of studies conducted by watchdog group Freedom House. Report data can be accessed through the Freedom House website or the full report can be downloaded.