The year 2014 marks the moment that the world turned its attention to writing laws to govern what happens on the Internet. And that has not been a great thing, according to an annual report from the U.S.-based pro-democracy think tank Freedom House.

Traditionally, countries eager to crack down on their online critics largely resorted to blocking Web sites and filtering Internet content, with the occasional offline harassment of dissidents. But that has changed, in part because online activists have gotten better at figuring out ways around those restrictions; Freedom House points to Greatfire, a service that takes content blocked in mainland China and hosts it on big, global platforms, like Amazon's servers, that the Chinese government finds both politically and technologically difficult to block.

In the wake of these tactics, repressive regimes have begun opting for a "technically uncensored Internet," Freedom House finds, but one that is increasingly controlled by national laws about what can and can't be done online. In 36 of the 65 countries surveyed around the world  the state of Internet freedom declined in 2014, according to the report.

Russia, for example, passed a law that allows the country's prosecutor general to block "extremist" Web sites without any judicial oversight. Kazakstan passed a similar law. Vietnam passed decrees cracking down on any critiques of the state on social media sites. Nigeria passed a law requiring that Internet cafes keep logs of the customers who come into their shops and use their computers.

There's a bigger worry at work, too, Freedom House says: the potential for a "snowball effect." More and more countries, the thinking goes, will adopt these sorts of restrictive laws. And the more that such laws are put in place, the more they fall within the range of acceptable global norms.

Also shifting those norms? According to Freedom House, "Some states are using the revelations of widespread surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) as an excuse to augment their own monitoring capabilities, frequently with little or no oversight, and often aimed at the political opposition and human rights activists."

Indeed, in the United States, too, 2014 has been a time of writing rules about the Internet into law. The Federal Communications Commission will not manage to wrap up work on so-called net neutrality rulemaking by Dec. 31, but there's no doubt that this year marks the first time the American public got hugely engaged in the debate over how the Internet should operate within our borders.

It's worth noting that there were a few bright spots elsewhere in the report. India relaxed a rule on online access and content that it had put in place last year after riots in the country's northeast. Meanwhile, Brazil passed an "Internet bill of rights" -- called Marco Civil da Internet -- that has both net neutrality and privacy protections.

This year also saw the start of a global attempt to create a set of pro-Internet model laws under the banner of the NETmundial Initiative, with the support of Brazil and the nonprofit Internet governance organization ICANN. But that effort is only just now getting off the ground. And as the Freedom House report shows, world leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin and others aren't waiting around for its guidance.

 

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