Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, at the Royal Academy of Engineering

Government censorship of politically sensitive web content is on the rise across the world and spreading from authoritarian regimes to democracies, according to a report.

Almost one in three countries are conducting “moderate to severe” blocking or filtering of legitimate dissent, according to research into 81 countries conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the report’s backers and inventor of the web, said “a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy”.

Governments in both developed and emerging countries were using provisions against cybercrime, terrorism and blasphemy to silence their critics, the report found.

In 20 per cent of the countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, a large portion of web content has been blocked either permanently or for extended periods over the past year.

Targeted forms of political censorship were taking place in some democracies, the report found, naming India, Belgium and Israel.

In Korea, politicians were using defamation laws and national security laws to block online comments, and to “harass and jail critics who challenged or satirised the decisions of government officials online”.

The warning about censorship is part of the 2013 Web Index, which ranks countries by how effectively they are using the world wide web to improve human rights and spur economic development.

Sweden topped the index for the second year, followed by Norway. The UK, whose government helps fund the index, remained in third place.

However, the US slipped down the rankings from second place to fourth, partly because of “lack of adequate safeguards to protect users’ privacy from extensive electronic surveillance”.

Sir Tim is one of the fiercest critics of the UK and US spy agencies for their surveillance activities such as attempts to crack the encryption codes that secure online communications.

Sweden took the top spot, as it has achieved the highest penetration of broadband among rich nations and near-universal wireless adoption. More than a decade ago Sweden established an “Information Society for All” law, which specified that every citizen should have access to broadband.

Of emerging nations, Mexico achieved the highest overall position in the rankings, followed by Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica and South Africa.

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