In freedom of online speech, U.S. and Cuba at opposite extremes: Freedom House report

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  • October 1, 2012

By Zach Dyer

The United States and Cuba are at opposite extremes of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2012 report. According to the New York-based organization, the United States was ranked the second most “free” country in the world for online expression, while Cuba was listed as the second to worst.

Freedom House ranked 47 countries as "free," "partly free," or "not free" for its 2012 report, which surveyed six countries in the Americas -- Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and the U.S.

While the U.S. scored near the top of the list, Freedom House warned the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) -- which have been temporarily derailed -- had the potential to threaten freedom of speech online. The report also cited the renewal of controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act and legal ambiguities about information stored in the “cloud” as cause for concern.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Freedom House rated Cuba as one of the worst countries in the world for online freedom of expression. The report charged that President Raul Castro has taken a different tack from his brother, Fidel, in dealing with dissident web access, relying on prohibitively high costs for connectivity and a lack of infrastructure rather than long-term prison sentences to limit unregulated use of the Internet.

Despite the Orwellian limitations independent journalists and bloggers face in Cuba, individuals have found ways around the regime’s firewalls. The report details how young Cubans are turning to Twitter and blogs to voice their critiques of the government and talk about their daily lives.

Meanwhile, Mexico ranked 19 in Freedom House's assessment and stood out for the role organized crime played in the country’s steep decline in Internet freedom. Online journalists and bloggers used to enjoy relative safety but 2011 saw the first drug-related killings of bloggers who denounced organized crime in cities like Nuevo Laredo.

Mexican officials have also cracked down on the use of social media, especially in Veracruz and Tabasco where bills were introduced to criminalize spreading false rumors via social networks like Twitter.

Brazil and Argentina enjoy a relatively high level of online free speech but their records were marred by aggressive use of the courts to restrict online speech. In Venezuela, the second lowest scoring country in the region after Cuba, the biggest threats to online speech were cyberattacks. The pro-government organization N33, for instance, has harassed opposition journalists and politicians by hacking into their Twitter and e-mail accounts.

The report found that freedom on the net does not always translate into a free press, noting significant disparities between the relative freedom of online speech and the much more restrictive and dangerous state of press freedom in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.

Read the full Freedom on the Net 2012 report here.

Read more about the freedom of expression online in Brazil in Portuguese or Spanish.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.