Many governments, seeking a less visible means to infringe on Internet freedom, have taken steps to increasingly monitor individuals' online behavior or communications. Governments across the spectrum, from democracies to authoritarian regimes, have boosted their surveillance capabilities in recent years or have announced their intention to do so. Although some surveillance may be necessary for fighting crime or preventing terrorist attacks, these powers are increasingly abused for political ends. Governments in 35 of the 60 countries examined upgraded their technical or legal surveillance powers over the past year. In the United States, revelation of widespread NSA surveillance has prompted a debate on the legitimacy and legality of such measures, particularly considering their global impact. Increased surveillance, particularly in authoritarian countries where the rule of law is weak, often leads to increased self-censorship: users become hesitant to risk repercussions by criticizing the authorities online.
Some governments and their sympathizers are increasingly using technical attacks to disrupt online networks of human rights activists and the political opposition, eavesdrop on their communications, and cripple their websites. Over the past year, such attacks were reported in at least 31 of the 60 countries evaluated by Freedom House. In Venezuela, for example, during the 2012 and 2013 presidential campaigns, the websites of popular independent media -- Noticiero Digital, Globovisión, and La Patilla -- were repeatedly subject to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which increased on election days and during the vote count. In countries ranging from China to Belarus to Vietnam to Bahrain, opposition figures and activists are routinely targeted with malicious software masked as important information about political developments or planned protests. When downloaded, the malware can enable attackers to monitor keystrokes and eavesdrop on personal communications. Although activists are increasingly aware of this practice and have been taking steps to protect themselves, the attacks are becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect.
Hiring pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions
The phenomenon of paid pro-government commentators has spread in the past two years, appearing in 22 of the 60 countries examined in this study. The purpose of these commentators -- covertly hired by government officials, often with public funds -- is to manipulate online discussions by trying to smear the reputation of government opponents, spread propaganda, and defend government policies when the discourse becomes critical. China, Bahrain, and Russia have been at the forefront of this practice for several years, but countries like Malaysia, Belarus, and Ecuador are increasingly using the same tactics, particularly surrounding politically sensitive events such as elections or major street protests.
Physical attacks and murder
Governments and powerful nonstate actors are increasingly resorting to physical violence to punish those who disseminate critical content online, with sometimes-fatal consequences. In 26 out of 60 countries, at least one blogger or Internet user had been attacked, beaten, or tortured for something posted online. In five of those countries, at least one activist or citizen journalist was killed in retribution for information posted online -- in most cases information that exposed human rights abuses. Syria was the most dangerous place for online reporters, with approximately 20 killed over the past year. In Mexico, several online journalists were murdered after refusing to stop writing exposés about drug trafficking and organized crime. In Egypt, several Facebook group administrators were abducted and beaten, while security forces allegedly targeted citizen journalists during protests.
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