Residents of Estonia have the most freedom to do what they want on the Internet, with the U.S. ranking second among 47 countries examined by a group that pushes for democratic freedoms worldwide.
However, residents of several countries have experienced attacks on bloggers, politically motivated surveillance, government manipulation of Web content and regulations focused on online speech, said Freedom House, which issued a report on Internet freedoms Monday.
Twenty of the 47 countries have less Internet freedom now than they did in January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia seeing the greatest declines, according to the report.
"We are seeing an increasing number of governments trying to limit free speech online," Sanja Kelly, project director of the study, said during a forum in Washington, D.C.
A number of governments in the Middle East have restricted Internet freedom since the Arab Spring movement that began in late 2010, she said. "They saw what kind of consequences can happen when people organize with social media," Kelly said.
In 14 countries, the governments are hiring people to comment online and drown out unpopular posts. This is one of the more "worrying trends" the study found, Kelly said.
The study found new laws or directives passed since January 2011 in 19 of the 47 countries to restrict online speech, violate user privacy, or punish people who post content deemed objectionable or undesirable.
In 26 countries, at least one blogger or Internet user has been arrested for content posted online or sent by text messages. In 19 countries, a blogger or Internet user was tortured, beaten or has disappeared apparently in response to their online posts, the study said. In five countries, an activist or citizen journalist was killed in retribution for posting information that exposed human rights abuses.
But the study reports what Kelly called a positive development in Internet freedom. In several countries, Internet activists and technology companies have fought against restrictive laws, she said.
Advocacy campaigns, mass demonstrations, website blackouts and constitutional court decisions have resulted in censorship plans being shelved, harmful legislation being overturned and jailed activists being released, the study said. In 23 countries, at least one change happened because of activism, the study said.
In the U.S., many activists and tech companies opposed the controversial copyright enforcement bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and they were killed as a result, the study noted.
The study called the Internet generally free in 14 countries, including the U.K., Brazil, Ukraine, Italy and Germany, although it found some problems in each of those countries. It rated the Internet in Nigeria, Jordan, Russia, Mexico and Egypt as partly free.
The study found the Internet not free in 13 countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Pakistan and Iran.
Freedom House used 50 researchers, many of them in the field, to test Internet freedoms in their countries.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.