Summary:

Developed-world governments are more likely than those in the developing world to spy on their citizens’ online communications, a report from the World Wide Web Foundation has warned. Meanwhile, a U.N. resolution on online privacy has been softened but retains some bite.

Tim Berners-Lee

The World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF) has published its second annual Web Index survey and, while the U.S. and U.K. rank third and fourth for their overall web-friendliness (behind Sweden and Norway), they take quite a dive when it comes to online surveillance.

In the report’s “freedom and openness” ranking, the U.K. has 24th place and the U.S. 27th – just behind Costa Rica. The report notes that developing countries are more likely to censor online content, but developed countries are “far more likely to spy” on online communications.

The WWWF is headed by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee (pictured above at an event last year), who has been a vocal critic of those using his creation to enable greater surveillance. Last year’s Web Index, the first, did not explicitly break out rankings for freedom and openness, so there’s nothing against which this year’s freedom rankings can be compared.

The 2013 report quotes United Nations free expression rapporteur Frank LaRue as saying:

“Technological advancements mean that the State’s effectiveness in conducting surveillance is no longer limited by scale or duration. Declining costs of technology and data storage have eradicated financial or practical disincentives to conducting surveillance. As such, the State now has a greater capability to conduct simultaneous, invasive, targeted and broad-scale surveillance than ever before.”

No kidding. Here’s the WWWF’s map for “censorship and surveillance” – the countries in black are the particularly egregious offenders; those in red (including the U.K. and U.S.) have “inadequate safeguards and due process against government digital surveillance”; and those in brown are censorship-happy when it comes to political content:

WWWF censorship and surveillance

It’s worth noting that the WWWF found 94 percent of countries didn’t meet the organization’s best practice standards for checks and balances on government interception of electronic communications. In this case, the WWWF says “best practice” means requiring both an order from an independent court and substantive justification, before spying in this way.

The report notes that “in 14 countries, including the United Kingdom, a non-particularised warrant is sufficient, and in a further 12 countries like the USA and Sweden, there is provision for a very weak form of court oversight.”

Meanwhile, over at the United Nations on Thursday, the U.S., U.K. and Australia managed to soften the language of the new “right to privacy in the digital age” resolution that was co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany (both of which suddenly got angry about surveillance when it turned out their leaders were being targeted).

The latest text states that the U.N. General Assembly is…

“… deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights”.

According to the Guardian , espionage partners the U.S., U.K. and Australia were “isolated” in their quest to soften the resolution’s phrasing. They did manage to excise an explicit reference to extraterritorial surveillance being a “human rights violation”.

However, the “extraterritorial surveillance” phrase survived, so the resolution still says people have a right to privacy even if they’re spied on by another country. Right now, the U.S. gives its own citizens rights against U.S. government spying, but denies them to citizens of other countries entirely.

Back in the U.K., the fallout is starting to hit from this week’s revelation that the former Labour government allowed the U.S. to spy on British citizens. As this is almost certainly illegal – the countries are secretly spying on each other’s citizens to get around their own domestic anti-surveillance laws – the head of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is demanding that intelligence agency GCHQ explain what’s really going on.

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