Freedom House launched its the 2012 Freedom on the Net report in Brussels this week, an appropriate moment given the rising global debate about free expression sparked by a YouTube video that ridicules Islam. The report makes for chilling reading. Online censorship is growing and attacks on bloggers and online critics are mounting. In 19 out of 47 countries Freedom House examined, “restrictions on Internet freedom in many countries have continued to grow.”

Amid the alarming news, an impressive beacon of freedom stood out - Estonia. The Baltic nation ranked first in Freedom House’s rankings. Thanks to a high internet penetration rate and widespread e-commerce and e-government services embedded into the daily lives of individuals and organizations, Estonia has become a model for free internet access as a development engine for society,” reads the report. Estonia has used the net to solidify its freedom from the Soviet Union and ’as a key to economic growth and invested heavily in their development,” reads the report.

Freedom House ranks countries’ “Internet Freedom Status” in three main ways: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of users’ rights. It also factors in tertiary factors, including internet penetration and blogger arrests. Estonia got high marks in almost every category. Other top scorers included the United States, Germany, and Australia.

Google helped sponsor the report. We hosted its Washington launch, which featured Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In Brussels, European Parliamentarian Marietje Schaake, the rapporteur on digital freedom, used the occasion to call on Europe to step up its defense of Internet liberties, in particular, by heading off attempts by governments to exert control through the International Telecommunications Union.