This article by Freedom House* discusses the increasing threat to internet freedom from government, including so-called democracies.
Over the past decade, and particularly in the last few years, the influence of the internet as a means to spread information and to challenge government- imposed media controls has steadily expanded. Today, over two billion people access the internet. However, as more people use the internet to communicate, obtain information, socialise, and conduct commerce, governments have increased efforts to regulate control. Reports of website blocking and filtering content all increased sharply in recent years.
Freedom House conducted a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 37 countries around the globe. The new edition, Freedom on the Net 2011, assesses a wider range of political systems, while tracking improvements and declines. Although the study’s findings indicate that the threats to internet freedom are growing and have become more diverse, they also highlight a push- back by citizens and activists who have found ways to sidestep some of the restrictions and use the power of new internet-based platforms to promote democracy and human rights.
When the internet first became commercially available in the 1990s, very few restrictions on on- line communications and content were in place. Recognising the economic potential of the new medium, many governments started investing heavily in telecommunications infrastructure, and internet service providers (ISPs) sought to attract subscribers by creating on-line chat rooms and building communities of users around various topics of interest. Even the authorities in China, exerted very little oversight in the early days. However, as various dissident groups in the late 1990s began using the internet to share information with audiences inside and outside the country, the government devoted tremendous human and material resources to the construction of a multi-layered surveillance and censorship apparatus. Although China represents one of the most severe cases, similar dynamics are evident in many other countries. A growing number of governments are moving to regulate or restrict the free flow of information on the internet. In authoritarian states, such efforts are partly rooted in the existing legal frameworks, which already limit the freedom of the traditional media. These states are increasingly blocking and filtering websites associated with the political opposition, coercing website owners into taking down politically and socially controversial content, and arresting bloggers and ordinary users for posting information contrary to the government’s views. 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.
The spread and intensification of internet controls in each country that showed decline generally conformed to one of the following three patterns: Initial signs of politically motivated internet controls: In several countries that were previously free from most internet controls, the first signs of politicised censorship and user rights violations emerged, often in the period before or during elections. Many of these incidents represented the first time that a website in the country had been blocked, a user detained, or a restrictive law passed. This dynamic was particularly evident in Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Jordan, and Rwanda. In Venezuela, for example, users subscribing to internet services through the state-owned telecommunications firm CANTV reported that they were unable to access opposition- oriented blogs and a popular news site in the days surrounding parliamentary elections in September 2010. In Azerbaijan in 2009, the authorities temporarily blocked several websites that lampooned the president, and jailed two youth activists who posted a video that mocked the government.
Acceleration and institutionalization
In countries where the authorities had already shown some tendency toward politically motivated controls over the internet, the negative trend accelerated dramatically, and new institutions were created specifically to carry out censorship. In Pakistan, for example, where temporary blocks have been common in recent years, a new Inter- Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites was established in mid-2010 to flag sites for blocking based on vaguely defined offenses against the state or religion. In Thailand, the government has long blocked internet content and taken legal action against users, particularly those posting information that is critical of the monarchy. However, the number of detained offenders and blocked sites sharply increased over the last two years, particularly while top officials had the authority to extra-judicially order blockings under a state of emergency that lasted from April to December 2010.
Strengthening of existing internet-control apparatus: Even in countries with some of the most robust censorship and internet surveillance systems in the world, measures were taken to eliminate loopholes and further strengthen the apparatus. In China, blogs on political and social issues were shut down, the space for anonymous communication has dwindled, and the government has stepped up efforts to counter circumvention tools. In Bahrain, Iran, Ethiopia, and Tunisia, intensified censorship or user arrests came in the context of popular protests or contentious elections. Following the June 2009 elections in Iran, the country’s centralised filtering system evolved to the point of being able to block a website nationwide within a few hours, and over 50 bloggers have been detained. In Vietnam, in addition to blocking websites, restricting some social-networking tools, and instigating cyberattacks, the authorities displayed their muscle by sentencing four activists to a total of 33 years in prison for using the internet to report human rights violations and express pro-democracy views.
The new internet restrictions around the globe are partly a response to the explosion in the popularity of advanced applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, through which ordinary users can easily post their own content, share information, and connect with large audiences. While mostly serving as a form of entertainment, over the last two years these tools have also played a significant role in political and social activism. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, democracy advocates have relied heavily on Facebook to mobilise supporters and organise mass rallies. Similarly, Bahraini activists have used Twitter and YouTube to inform the outside world about the government’s violent response to their protests. Even in Cuba, one of the most closed societies in the world, several bloggers have been able to report on daily life and human rights violations.
Many governments have started specifically targeting these new applications in their censorship campaigns. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities consistently or temporarily imposed total bans on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or equivalent services. More over, the increased user participation facilitated by the new platforms has exposed ordinary people to some of the same punishments faced by well-known bloggers, on-line journalists, and human rights activists. Among other recent cases, a Chinese woman was sent to a labour camp over a satirical Twitter message, and an Indonesian housewife faced high fines for an e-mail she sent to friends complaining about a local hospital. Because new technologies typically attract the young, some of those arrested have been teenagers, including an 18-year old Iranian blogger writing about women’s rights and a 19-year old Tibetan detained after looking at on-line photographs of the Dalai Lama.
The 2011 edition of Freedom on the Net identifies a growing set of obstacles that pose a common threat to internet freedom in many of the countries examined. Of the 15 countries covered in the pilot in 2009, a total of 9 registered score declines over the past two years. The newly added countries lack earlier scores for comparison, but conditions in at least half of them suggest a negative trajectory, with increased government blocking, filtering, legal action, and intimidation to prevent users from accessing unfavorable content. In cases where these tactics are deemed ineffective or inappropriate, authorities have turned to cyber attacks, misinformation, and other indirect methods to alter the information landscape.