REEDOM ON THE
Cyberattacks against regime critics:
Some governments and their sympathizers are increasingly using technical attacks to disrupt
activists’ online networks, eavesdrop on their communications, and cripple their websites.
Over the past year, such attacks were reported in at least 31 of the countries covered in this
study. 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 Belarus to Vietnam to
Bahrain, opposition figures and activists are routinely targeted with malicious software that
is masked as important information about political developments or planned protests.
When downloaded, the malware can enable attackers to monitor the victims’ keystrokes
and eavesdrop on their 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.
New laws and arrests for political, religious, or social speech online:
Instead of merely blocking and filtering information that is deemed undesirable, an
increasing number of countries are passing new laws that criminalize certain types of
political, religious, or social speech, either explicitly or through vague wording that can be
interpreted in such a way. Consequently, more users are being arrested, tried, or
imprisoned for their posts on social networks, blogs, and websites. In fact, some
governments may prefer to institute strict punishments for people who post offending
content rather than actually blocking it, as this allows officials
to maintain the appearance of a free and open internet while
imposing a strong incentive for users to practice self-
censorship. Even countries willing to invest in systematic
filtering often find that criminal penalties remain an important
deterrent. Turkey, Bangladesh, and Azerbaijan are among the
countries that have, over the past year, significantly stepped
up arrests of users for their online activism and posts.
Paid progovernment commentators manipulate online discussions:
Already evident in a number of countries assessed in the previous edition of Freedom of the
Net, the phenomenon of paid progovernment 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 by using 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
More users are being
arrested, prosecuted, or
imprisoned for their
posts on social networks,
blogs, and websites.