A new report from Freedom House has ranked Iran the world's worst abuser of online freedoms.

"Freedom on the Net 2011" determined that the five worst countries for online freedom - based on obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights - are Iran, followed by Burma, China, Cuba and Tunisia. (The last entry is certainly changed somewhat by the uprising earlier this year.)

The authors explain the situation in Iran.

"Since the protests that followed disputed presidential elections in June 2009, the Iranian authorities have waged an active campaign against internet freedom, employing extensive and sophisticated methods of control that go well beyond simple content filtering, though this too has become more severe since the election. Tactics employed include deliberately slowing internet speeds at critical times to make basic online activities difficult and ordering blogging service providers inside Iran to remove 'offensive' posts. The regime has also sought to counter critical content and online organizing efforts by extending state propaganda into the digital sphere: over 400 news websites are either directly or indirectly supported by the state.

"Since June 2009, an increasing number of bloggers have been threatened, arrested, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement, and at least one blogger died in custody. Over 50 bloggers and online activists have been arrested, and a dozen remained in detention at the end of 2010. The Iranian authorities have taken a range of measures to monitor online communications, and a number of protesters who were put on trial after the election were indicted for their activities on Facebook and Balatarin, a Persian site that allows users to share links and news. A group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army, later found to be associated with the Iranian authorities, also managed to hack a number of opposition and news sites with a mix of technical methods and forgery."

In contrast, the five freest countries are Estonia, the United States, Germany, Australia and the U.K.

But here's arguably the worst indicator of the health of free speech online.

"Even in more democratic countries--such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom--internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance."

We expect repressive countries to repress. We expect democratic countries to exert forces against that tendency. Of course they do, but when you see this sort of trend, you're seeing a speech ecosystem under serious threat. Transparency is growing more opaque even as it becomes the motif du jour. Is it time for those in democratic countries to spend at least as much time at the sickbeds of their own freedoms as the graves of others'? (That was a rhetorical question. It's time.)

Other sources: OpenNet Initiative