Rich countries bid up the price of Internet freedom

Assume perfect information.

The richer the country, the greater the impact and accessibility of the web, but the more intrusive governments become. The annual Web Index, compiled by the World Wide Web foundation, shows a strong correlation between high GDP and high scores on the attributes it measures. Even amid warnings from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web and the man behind the foundation, that “a growing tide of
surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy”, it’s people in rich countries that are better able to improve their lives and affect the course of government via the Internet. That’s not necessarily true, though, of online freedom.

The rankings include surveillance and censorship together in a “freedom and openness” category. Although those are two different things, the effect can be the same and it’s rich countries where the latter is the greater threat, according to the report

While developing countries, as discussed below, are most likely to resort to blocking and filtering to control online communication, thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that the developed world is far more likely to spy on such communications. It has been suggested that the knowledge that someone is tracking what you say and do online may be more likely to produce self-censorship than overt banning of certain websites.

Despite scoring high in general terms, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and South Korea are well down the list when it comes to the Index’s freedom and openness criteria. Tops in that category are Norway, Finland, Iceland, Holland and France, in that order. At the bottom are Qatar, Yemen, China and Vietnam, with Saudi Arabia coming 81st and dead last in online freedom.

New Zealand does well on all counts, ranking 5th overall and 8th in freedom and openness. It’s also reckoned as the second greatest overachiever, with its 5th place Web Index score outpacing its 23rd place GDP standing by 18 slots. Only the Philippines – 38th on the Web Index and 59th in GDP for a 21 point gap – does better.

A poor country is less likely to abuse surveillance technology because it lacks the resources. But absent legal, social and political constraints, the WWW Foundation’s report shows that rich countries will.