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Freedom on the "Net: A Global Assessment
[August 04, 2010]

Freedom on the "Net: A Global Assessment

Aug 04, 2010 (STATE DEPARTMENT RELEASE/ContentWorks via COMTEX) -- By Daniel Calingaert and Sarah Cook Even as the Internet offers citizens greater means of expression, a leading nongovernmental organization reports that many governments seek to restrict Internet access and content.

Daniel Calingaert is deputy director of programs at Freedom House, a nonprofit organization receiving funding from the U.S. State Department, Google, and other sources to promote Internet freedom. Sarah Cook is a research analyst specializing in Asia. She served as assistant editor for the 2009 publication Freedom on the "Net. This article appears in the "Defining Internet Freedom" issue of eJournal USA.

As access to online technologies has grown exponentially in recent years, the Internet has increased opportunities to enrich public discourse, expose abuses of power, and facilitate citizen activism. It has provided greater space for free expression in both democratic settings and countries where traditional broadcast and print media are restricted. Many governments have responded with measures to control, regulate, and censor the content of blogs, Web sites, and text messages.

These developments raise several fundamental questions: What are the primary threats to Internet freedom? Will the Internet bring freedom to oppressed people or will it strengthen the power of repressive regimes which control it? Are democratic societies immune from Internet repression or are threats to digital media freedom emerging there as well? Freedom House explored these questions in Freedom on the "Net, a 2009 survey that rated Internet freedom in 15 countries, spanning four continents and covering a range of national regulatory environments from free to highly repressive. According to the findings, threats to Internet freedom are growing and diversifying both in the array of countries that impose restrictions and in the range of methods employed.

Authoritarian rulers understand the power of the Internet and are actively curtailing its impact. A few highly repressive governments -- such as that of Cuba -- restrict access to a very small segment of the population. There are few public Internet access points, and the cost of service is prohibitive for the vast majority of citizens.

Other authoritarian governments, such as those in China, Iran, and Tunisia, actively promote Internet use to stimulate innovation and economic growth, but place wide-ranging controls over digital media to prevent their use by government critics. These regimes maintain extensive, multilayered systems of censorship and surveillance to stifle online dissent or exposure of official corruption. They place severe limits on the content that citizens can access, post on the Internet, or transmit via cell phones. Surveillance of Internet and mobile phone communications is pervasive, and citizens who criticize the government online are subject to harassment, imprisonment, and torture.

In less restrictive settings, for instance in Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia, the Internet has emerged as a haven of relatively free speech in otherwise restrictive media environments. The space for free speech, however, is slowly closing, as governments devise subtle methods to manipulate online discussion and apply deliberately vague security laws to intimidate and arrest their critics. This intimidation leads to self-censorship among online journalists and commentators.

Even in more democratic countries -- such as the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Turkey -- Internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque filtering procedures, and expanding surveillance.

Web 2.0 Just as the number of Internet users has grown exponentially since 2000, the second generation of Web design and the emergence of online social networks have empowered average users to produce and disseminate information. Where traditional media transmit information vertically to audiences, Web 2.0 applications spread information horizontally, and have thus profoundly affected how we communicate.

Tens of millions of ordinary citizens around the world have become content publishers and distributors. They write online journals; produce videos; investigate sensitive issues; and comment on political, social, and other topics. In restricted media environments, bloggers often stand at the forefront of efforts to push the bounds of free expression. Web 2.0 applications promote not only independent expression but also freedom of association. They facilitate discussions and interactions among individuals, regardless of physical location. They build online communities of citizens with shared interests and make possible the rapid spread of information, such as news updates or calls to action. Digital media are thus used extensively for civic activism.In Kenya, activists launched an initiative called Ushahidi during a burst of postelection ethnic violence in 2007. It catalogued incidents using messages sent by ordinary citizens with their mobile phones and posted them onto a map to track the unfolding events. The program has since been deployed again in the context of other tumultuous events: elections in India, fighting in Gaza, and earthquake relief in Haiti.

As a result of its horizontal configuration, the Internet usually provides greater space for free expression than traditional media. All of the countries surveyed in Freedom on the "Net, with a single exception, received a higher rating for Internet freedom than for overall media freedom, as measured on the same scale by Freedom House's Freedom of the Press survey. The difference in ratings for Internet freedom and traditional media freedom was most pronounced among countries ranked "partly free." Repression 2.0 The horizontal nature of the Internet both empowers citizens in ways that traditional media cannot, and makes the flow of information far more difficult to control. Regardless, authoritarian governments try to restrict horizontal communication and impede the spread of domestically generated content they find objectionable. Although the primary aim is to silence domestic critics and prevent the emergence of political alternatives, the controls imposed to accomplish this necessarily are more intrusive and directly affect larger numbers of people than restrictions on traditional media.

Several countries have developed an array of censorship and surveillance methods to curtail Internet freedom: * Access to Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and YouTube is blocked permanently or temporarily. These blocks are often imposed around particular events, as the Chinese government did during the 2009 unrest in Xinjiang. Burma cut off all access to the global Internet for several days in 2007 after the violent crackdown on peaceful protests in the "Saffron Revolution." Iran denies home and Internet cafe users access to broadband.

* Technical filtering at the level of Internet service providers (ISP) prevents access to specific online articles or Web sites. Where employed more extensively, the filters effectively "black out" broad swaths of information. Filters can target keywords, particular Web addresses, or entire domain names. At least 25 countries, according to the Open Net Initiative, conduct technical filtering of the Internet in some capacity.

* Human censors monitor and manually remove blog posts. They shut down online discussion forums that address forbidden subjects, such as human rights violations, criticism of political figures, or official corruption. Authorities in Russia and elsewhere resort to behind-the-scenes phone calls to pressure bloggers or Web site hosts to remove certain content.

* Rather than rely entirely on direct intervention by government agencies, some regimes increasingly "outsource" censorship and surveillance to private companies'to Internet service providers, blog-hosting companies, cybercafes, and mobile phone operators. Companies risk fines or loss of business licenses if they fail to filter political content, monitor Internet activity, or collect data on Internet users. Users are required to register with an ISP when they purchase Internet access at home or at work, so they cannot operate online anonymously.

* A number of governments use clandestine, paid pro-government commentators or state-funded Web sites to influence online discussions. The Chinese government employs an estimated 250,000 or more "50 Cent Party" commentators, who reportedly receive 50 Chinese cents for each pro-government post.

* Authoritarian governments use general press laws against insult, blasphemy, leaking state secrets, etc. to punish online dissidents. Cuba prosecutes online journalists under generic charges such as presenting a "pre-criminal social danger." China has issued more than 80 decrees that specifically address Internet-related issues and imposes among the harshest prison sentences in the world for online violations, typically between three and ten years. Numerous prosecutions have also occurred in Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Malaysia, where laws against insulting the head of state or Islam are most frequently invoked. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for the first time in 2008, more online journalists were behind bars than traditional journalists, due to either legal prosecution or extralegal detention.

* When not imprisoned, bloggers and online journalists face intimidation, including 24-hour surveillance, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and even torture. Egypt permits a relatively open Internet environment but targets a few prominent individuals to make an example of them and create a chilling effect on their peers.

* Blogs and Web sites are hacked or subjected to denial-of-service attacks, which disrupt or shut down the sites. On the first anniversary of Burma's Saffron Revolution, for example, independent news Web sites hosted in Thailand, such as the Irrawaddy and the New Era, became targets of cyber attacks.

The full panoply of repressive methods is used to control the Internet in the most restricted environments, for instance in China, Iran, and Tunisia, ranked "not free" in Freedom House's study. They have developed sophisticated, multilayered systems to control the free flow of online information.

Other countries, such as Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia, allow substantial freedom online but seem headed toward greater controls. They encourage expanded access to the Internet and rarely directly block online expression, despite their heavy restrictions on traditional media. However, they exert more subtle state influence on content via proactive manipulation or behind-the-scenes pressure, repress citizen attempts to mobilize online, and impose harsh penalties on their online critics. Freedom House ranks these countries "partly free." Internet Freedom and Restrictions in Democratic Settings Countries that scored in the "free" range in the Freedom on the "Net study included Estonia (the best performer in the pilot sample), the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. These countries all have a generally open environment for new media, with few or no government obstacles to access, a low level of content control, and few violations of users' rights. Democratic settings have also shown the capacity for "self-correction" following public exposures of restrictions on Internet freedom. In Turkey, a parliamentary inquiry was launched into surveillance practices by law enforcement agencies following a series of scandals.

Even within these relatively free environments, however, areas of concern have emerged.

In Brazil, judicial decisions that lead to content censorship are a growing threat, while YouTube has been blocked repeatedly both there and in Turkey. Meanwhile, in countries such as the United Kingdom or Turkey, censorship decisions are made with a serious lack of transparency, even if the information targeted is primarily small amounts of well-defined content, such as child pornography. The lack of public lists of blocked Web sites or opportunity to appeal censorship decisions creates the risk of restrictions spreading to politically and socially important information.

Citizens Fight Back Despite the growing range of threats and controls, citizens operating even in highly Internet-restricted environments are findings creative ways to produce and spread information. In Cuba, with its tight controls on access, citizens share downloaded Internet content offline, often through USB devices, a phenomenon termed "sneakernets." In China, persecuted Tibetans, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners have used digital media to send abroad documentation of torture, while domestically challenging Communist Party propaganda via blogs and underground DVDs. In Tunisia, the blog NormalLand discusses Tunisian politics by using a virtual country with a virtual leader, and with various government positions being assigned to other local bloggers.

Citizens have also been able to use the Internet and mobile phones for activism against censorship itself. In 2009, Chinese netizens organized online resistance to the planned introduction of Green Dam Youth Escort censorship software. Domestic criticism'expressed via social networking tools and online petitions'along with foreign pressure persuaded the Chinese government to delay the large-scale introduction of Green Dam.

The broader political implications of online activism are especially striking in "partly free" internet environments. In Egypt, the Facebook group Elbaradei for Presidency has attracted more than 235,000 members in approximately five months. Malaysia's opposition political parties conducted a large part of their March 2008 general election campaigns through digital media'including blogs, YouTube and SMS (short message services on mobile phones), which contributed to unprecedented ballot-box gains.

Conclusion Digital media technologies promise improved flow of information, enhanced civic participation and activism, and ultimately, greater freedom and quality of life. Nonetheless, the Freedom on the "Net pilot study amply documents that this potential cannot be taken for granted. As Freedom House prepares a second, 37-country edition of the study for release in 2011, this has become more evident. From Kazakhstan and Belarus to Australia, restrictive new laws have been approved or are being considered.

Vigorous efforts by netizens and their advocates in democratic countries are a necessary response to these and other restrictions on online freedom. In a fast-changing digital world, the proponents of free expression must take the initiative to defend and advance freedom on the Internet.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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