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Web Index Sees Impact of Net Neutrality, Surveillance and Copyright Laws

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, December 11 2014

Denmark, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden have come out on top of this year's edition of the Web Index released Thursday, a ranking of the Web Foundation measuring the economic, social and political benefit that countries gain from the web. The United States is at number six.

For the authors of the report accompanying the index, the results reflect how inequality has an impact on access to the web. "Nordic policy-makers have been quick to adopt and promote the free Internet - and open access to information - as a 21st century public good," the report states. " Others, as this year's findings show, need to move fast to catch up." The report attributes the Scandinavian countries' advantage to the countries' broader efforts to invest in public goods and establish a welfare and acting against " excess concentrations of wealth and power." With the lower inequality in those countries than in others, "the skills, means and freedoms to benefit from new technologies are widespread, which helps to explain why Scandinavian countries score highly on the political, social and economic impact of the Web."

The report's authors highlight how net neutrality can be a significant factor in promoting equal access, with the risks of traffic discrimination and raising barriers to entry. The Web Foundation's found that only three countries, Chile, Israel and the Netherlands, scored "very good" on that indicator with a score of eight. "Our analysis suggests that 74 percent of Web Index countries either lack clear and effective net neutrality rules, and/or show evidence of traffic discrimination," the report states. The authors point out that while the focus in developed countries has been equal access for video or entertainment services, a more urgent issue in developing countries is web companies offering a limited service selection for free often through a phone operator for free, such as Facebook's in Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya and a deal between Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya.

In addition to the United States, which scored a six, another country where the debate has recently flared ups is Germany, after Chancellor Angela Merkel said in remarks at a Vodafone event that "special services" should be paid, suggesting that was necessary to support uninterrupted connectivity for services like telemedicine and driverless cars. Her comments have reenergized online activists in Germany to a degree, and Markus Beckedahl, founder of the blog Netzpolitik, has started a petition calling for securing net neutrality.

Another area the report highlights is the ways in which copyright restrictions by private companies can restrict the user experience. " Takedown demands from private parties on grounds of copyright infringement far exceed government censorship attempts.," the report states. "In the first half of 2013, services operated by Google received copyright takedown notices for about 4 million URLs every week, while government demands for content removal affected about 1,000 items per week." Unlike the United States, many other countries do not have a legal framework such as the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which offers online intermediary sites safe harbor from legal liability over infringement notices. The report found that " 64% of countries surveyed have not established clear and adequate protection for intermediaries," creating legal uncertainty.

Still, the report also finds users at an increased risk of "indiscriminate government surveillance" as well as in increase in government censorship.

Compared to last year, " the proportion of countries whose legal safeguards for privacy were judged weak to non-existent rose from 63% to 83%," the report found. Based on the Web Foundation's analysis, the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada and France all score under three out of a possible ten on that measure. According to the report, that increase because more information about government overreach has come to light, but also due to significant increase in government requests for information, as well as new legal measures, that, according to the report, weaken privacy safeguards and expand state surveillance. The report terms eight countries making the most user data requests from Facebook, Twitter and Google the Surveillance G8: the United States, India, Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Brazil and Japan.

The report also notes an increase in the proportion of Web Index countries that were blocking politically or socially sensitive online content to a moderate or extreme degree, from 30 percent to 38 percent, and also took a closer look at how the online space differed from off-line opportunities for expression. "Of the 45 Web Index countries with extensive constraints on speech, only seven (about 16%) seem to censor more heavily online than offline, while 12 (about 27%) censor the Internet less extensively than they restrict traditional media – judging by a comparison of their Web Index score for online censorship with Freedom House scores for freedom of speech more generally, the report notes. Some in the first category are Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya, Colombia and the Ukraine. Among the second category are Korea, Israel, India and Hungary.

In those countries where there is greater online freedom than offline, there is also more evidence of social and political mobilization using the web, especially through civil society organizations. However, the report warns that some countries where the online space seems freer may just not yet be censorship software tools yet, noting research indicating that "over half of the 45 Web Index countries with poor records on freedom of expression are known to be using such tools already."

While the report noted evidence for the second year in a row of the web aiding social and political action in over 60 percent of the countries, it also underlined differences based on economic development. "Nearly all of the democratic countries that scored very poorly (three or below) on the use of the Web to catalyses citizen mobilisation are low- or lower-middle-income countries, and no low-income country scored above a six," the report states. " High poverty rates are associated with low political empowerment scores for all countries as a group. This may well be explained by low levels of Internet access, preventing Web-powered communications from reaching a wide audience."

Still, the report does highlight that the web has become mobilizing force in countries where with offline speech restrictions including Egypt, China, Thailand and Bahrain. "Many of these countries are also ones where we found that the internet is less heavily censored than traditional media."

For the authors, the index's insights reemphasize the need to works toward equal web access for population sectors. "Poverty must not prevent anyone, anywhere from connecting," the report states. In addition, it calls for addressing net neutrality and copyright law issues in part by viewing the Internet as a public utility, ensuring high-quality public education, promoting political participation and freedom of expression, and offering more opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups through Information and communications technology.