Shady agencies at the service of democratically-elected governments are among the worst online spies in the world, media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, Reporters Without Borders) says, putting them on the same level as offenders in Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia.
In the latest installment of the Enemies of the Internet report on Wednesday, wholesale spying by "free world" services — much of it exposed by US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden — has offered no distinction from the unabashed surveillance carried out by the world's worst dictatorships.
To RSF, agencies such as the US National Security Agency, Britain's GCHQ, and the Centre for Development Telematics in India, embrace the worst methods of snooping in the name of governments that purportedly hold freedom of speech as a national priority.
They have "hacked into the very heart of the internet" and turned a collective resource "into a weapon in the service of special interests" that flout the "freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy".
"The NSA and GCHQ have spied on the communications of millions of citizens including many journalists," the report by Reporters Sans Frontieres said.
The methods used, many of which NSA contractor Snowden revealed to the world last year before going into hiding in Russia, "are all the more intolerable" because they are then used by authoritarian countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia, the report said.
Also singled out by RSF are private companies that provide their most up-to-date powers of snooping at trade fairs that have become giant spying bazaars selling the best that technology can offer.
It is at these shows, hosted regularly around the world, that profit-driven spyware firms link up with government agents or nervous multinationals that are in search of the newest ways to observe and control the internet.
Governments keen to impose censorship also help one another.
Iran has asked China to help it develop a local version of the electronic Great Wall that cuts off billions of Chinese from the internet as seen by the rest of the world.
From 2009 until the 2012 edition of the report, Australia was placed on thewhile its government was considering internet censorship proposals.