By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Governments around the world are expanding censorship and surveillance of the Internet as overall online freedom declined for the fifth consecutive year, according to a report from a group that tracks democracy and human rights.
Nearly half of 65 countries examined have seen online freedom weaken since June 2014, Freedom House said in an annual survey released on Wednesday.
One of the steepest declines occurred in France, which passed a law that many observers likened to the U.S. Patriot Act in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks earlier this year, according to the report.
Ukraine, mired in a territorial conflict with Russia, and Libya also experienced sharp drops.
The report highlighted China as the country with the most severe restrictions on Internet freedom, followed by Syria and Iran. Sri Lanka and Zambia, both of which recently underwent changes in government leadership, were credited with making the biggest improvements in overall online freedom.
Overall, 14 countries adopted laws in the past year to expand government surveillance, the report found.
Bucking that trend, the United States passed legislation in June that effectively terminates the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of U.S. phone metadata, a program exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The new law was an "incremental step" toward digital surveillance reform, according to the report's authors.
The report also found that critical comments about government authorities were most likely to prompt censorship, and that private companies in 42 of the 65 countries were forced to delete or restrict online content.
In addition, many governments took more aggressive stances against encryption and online anonymity technologies this year.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jeffrey Benkoe)