Attacks on Internet freedom are on the rise, and the tools employed by repressive governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
That's according to "Freedom On The Net 2012
," a newly released report by U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House, that assesses 47 countries' online track records between January 2011 and May 2012.
Sanja Kelly, the report's director, says more "traditional" methods employed by repressive governments, such as filtering and blocking of undesirable content or imprisonment of prominent online figures, are being supplemented with more nuanced means.
"Threats to Internet freedom are becoming more diverse and are becoming much murkier than in the past," Kelly said.
"What we've seen over the last year and a half is that more and more governments are turning to tactics such as proactive manipulation of online content and extralegal surveillance to more covertly manipulate and influence internet content."
Of the countries surveyed in the report, more than a quarter used cadres of paid pro-government bloggers to try to discredit the opposition, spread false information, or prop up the official state line. Freedom House says the tactic was in the past "largely limited to Russia and China," but has now extended to Belarus, Ukraine, Iran, and beyond.
Freedom House says cyberattacks against government critics or efforts to impersonate and discredit activists online are also becoming more common, employed from Bahrain to Burma, Kazakhstan to Syria, and Uzbekistan to Zimbabwe.
"Freedom On The Net" highlights reports in the Russian media of an alleged plan by President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party to invest more than $300,000 in an online scheme to undercut opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny.
While the Internet is considered to be a relatively open space in Russia, Kelly says the authorities have stepped up their attacks in response to the recent wave of antigovernment protests, many of which were organized through online networks.
"When we talk to the people on the ground, we hear about an increased number of phone calls by authorities, particularly in regions and on the local level, telling you that unless you stop posting online, not only will you suffer the consequences, but your family will too," said Kelly.
Freedom House also reports an uptick in various methods of surveillance, including new regulations passed in Kazakhstan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia that increase restrictions on user anonymity.
Just under half of the countries in "Freedom On The Net 2012" passed new legislation during the survey period that could hamper free speech online.
The report also notes an increase in physical assaults -- sometimes with deadly consequences -- against bloggers and citizen journalists from Central Asia to the Middle East.
Overall, Iran, Cuba, China, and Syria were judged to have the least online freedom, while countries including Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Pakistan were also classed "not free." Estonia, the United States, and Germany are rated freest.
Azerbaijan, Libya, Pakistan, and Russia were among the nations considered "particularly vulnerable to deterioration in the coming months."
According to Kelly, Baku is beginning to implement sophisticated surveillance of the Internet and authorities are stepping up their harassment of bloggers. It may be a sign of things to come.
"When the Internet Governance Forum, which will take place in a couple of months [November 6-9] in Baku, is over, I think the strong sense is that the authorities will not have to hold back because the international attention is not going to be on them and they're going to pursue some of these measures more harshly," said Kelly.
Despite the negative trends, Freedom House also says pushback by civil society and technology companies have also increased, with a "victory" reported in half of the countries surveyed. For example, proposals for national firewall in Pakistan were defeated after protest by civil society.