Beset by online surveillance and content filtering, netizens fight on
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To mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, Reporters Without Borders is today releasing its new list of “Enemies of the Internet” and “countries under surveillance.” This report updates the list released in 2011.
Two countries, Bahrain and Belarus, have passed from the “countries under surveillance” to the “Enemies of the Internet” category. Venezuela and Libya have been dropped from the “under surveillance” category while India and Kazakhstan have been added to it.
“The changes in this list reflect recent developments in online freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Netizens have been at the heart of political changes in the Arab world in 2011. Like journalists, they have tried to resist censorship but have paid a high price.
“Last year will be remembered as one of unprecedented violence against netizens. Five were killed while engaged in reporting activity. Nearly 200 arrests of bloggers and netizens were reported in 2011, a 30 per cent increase on 2010. These unprecedented figures risk being exceeded in 2012 as a result of the indiscriminate violence being used by the Syrian authorities in particular. More than 120 netizens are currently detained.
“On World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, we pay tribute to the ordinary citizens who often risk their lives or their freedom to keep us informed and to ensure that often brutal crackdowns do not take place without the outside world knowing.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “As online censorship and content filtering continue to accentuate the Internet’s division and digital segregation, solidarity among those who defend a free Internet accessible to all is more essential than ever in order to maintain channels of communication between netizens and to ensure that information continues to circulate.”
Social networks and netizens versus filtering and surveillance
The last report, released in March 2011, highlighted the fact that the Internet and online social networks had been conclusively established as tools for organizing protests and circulating information in the course of the Arab world’s mass uprisings. In the months that followed, repressive regimes responded with tougher measures to what they regarded as unacceptable attempts to destabilize their authority.
At the same time, supposedly democratic countries continue to set a bad example by yielding to the temptation to put security above other concerns and by adopting disproportionate measures to protect copyright. Technical service providers are under increasing pressure to act as Internet cops. Companies specializing in online surveillance are becoming the new mercenaries in an online arms race. Hactivists are providing technical expertise to netizens trapped by repressive regimes. Diplomats are getting involved. More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.
Two new Enemies of the Internet – Bahrain and Belarus
Bahrain and Belarus have joined Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam in the “Enemies of the Internet” category. These countries combine often drastic content filtering with access restrictions, tracking of cyber-dissidents and online propaganda.
Bahrain offers an example of an effective news blackout based a remarkable array of repressive measures: keeping the international media away, harassing human rights activists, arresting bloggers and netizens (one of whom died in detention), smearing and prosecuting free speech activists, and disrupting communications, especially during major demonstrations.
As Belarus sinks further into political isolation and economic stagnation, President Lukashenko’s regime has lashed out at the Internet in response to an attempted “revolution via the social media.” The Internet was blocked during a series of “silent protests,” the list of inaccessible websites grew longer and some sites were the victims of cyber-attacks. Internet users and bloggers were arrested or invited to “preventive conversations” with the police in a bid to get them to stop demonstrating or covering demonstrations. And Law No. 317-3, which took effect on 6 January 2012, gave the regime additional Internet surveillance and control powers.
India and Kazakhstan added to “under surveillance” list
Since the Mumbai bombings of 2008, the Indian authorities have stepped up Internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, while publicly rejecting accusations of censorship. The national security policy of the world’s biggest democracy is undermining online freedom of expression and the protection of Internet users’ personal data.
Kazakhstan, which likes to think of itself as a regional model after holding the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, nonetheless seems to be turning its back on all its fine promises in order to take the road of cyber-censorship. An unprecedented oil workers strike helped to increase government tension in 2011 and led to greater control of information. The authorities blocked news websites, cut communications around the city of Zhanaozen during unrest, and imposed new, repressive Internet regulations.
Venezuela and Libya dropped from “under surveillance” list
In Libya, many challenges remain but the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has ended an era of censorship. Before his removal and death, Col. Gaddafi had tried to impose a news blackout by cutting access to the Internet.
In Venezuela, access to the Internet continues to be unrestricted. The level of self-censorship is hard to evaluate but the adoption in 2011 of legislation that could potentially limit Internet freedom has yet to have any damaging effect in practice. Reporters Without Borders will nonetheless remain vigilant as relations between the government and critical media are tense.
Thailand and Burma may be about to change places
If Thailand continues further down the slope of content filtering and jailing netizens on lèse-majesté charges, it could soon find itself transferred from the “under surveillance” category to the club of the world’s most repressive countries as regards online freedom.
Burma, on the other hand, could soon leave the “Enemies of the Internet” list if takes the necessary measures. It has embarked on a promising period of reforms that have included freeing journalists and bloggers and restoring access to blocked websites. It must now go further by abandoning censorship altogether, releasing the journalists and bloggers still held, dismantling the Internet surveillance apparatus and repealing the Electronics Act.
Other subjects of concern
Other countries have jailed netizens or established a form of Internet censorship. They include Pakistan, which recently invited bids for a national Internet filtering system that would create an Electronic Great Wall. Even if they are not on these lists, Reporters Without Borders will continue to closely monitor online freedom of information in countries such as Azerbaijan, Morocco and Tajikistan.