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Internet Freedom Threatened By New Restrictions

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 04/18/11 02:53 PM ET Updated: 06/18/11 06:12 AM ET

Internet Freedom

Freedom on the worldwide Internet is in danger, according to a new report by Freedom House.

In a survey of 37 countries, only 8 qualified as having completely "Free" Internets, while 11 were designated "Not Free" and the remainder were "Partly Free." The survey measured Internet freedom by studying obstacles to access, such as governmental efforts to block technologies or control over Internet access providers, limits on content, including the blocking of websites and other forms of censorship, as well as violations of user rights including privacy, online surveillance and real world repercussions for online activity. The U.S. scored second on the list as ranked by most to least free, with Estonia taking the lead as the nation where the Internet was most free. Germany, Australia and the UK were ranked just behind the U.S.

Among the most alarming findings of the report was evidence that a growing number of countries are attempting to restrict the flow on information online by blocking political content and threatening website owners and bloggers with arrest. Even more democratic countries, like the UK, are chipping away at web freedom with other forms of censorship and surveillance, or with legal harassment. The report listed Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Jordan as the countries where a relatively free Internet now threatens to become severely restricted: signs include the 2011 sentencing of a Thai web developer to 13 years of prison over certain web comments, Russian use of "sock puppets" to influence public opinion, and other forms of increased censorship, coercion and restriction.

The report isolated three kinds of controls over Internet now beginning to see implementation: politically motivated control (blocking websites, or detaining users), accelerating institutional controls (as in Pakistan's new Committee for the Evaluation of Websites, responsible for flagging "offensive" websites against the state), and strengthening pre-existing internet control devices. Some examples of such strengthening include Iran's centralized filtering system, which can block a website across the country within hours, and recent action by Vietnam to sentence four activists to 33 years of prison time for reporting human rights violations online.

As the report notes, much of this governmental response has come as a result of the Internet's explosive rise through social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter, which make it much easier than ever before to create and share content with large groups of people. Of course, Twitter and Facebook have also proven recently to be vitally important in mobilizing revolutionary action as in Egypt, and Tunisia, as well as in exposing conditions in countries traditionally closed off from all traditional media, such as Cuba.

The numbers are startling. Twelve of the 37 countries in the survey have had, at least temporarily, total bans on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or equivalent applications. In 22 of the countries, a blogger or other Internet user was arrested for something posted online--as with the Chinese woman sent to labor camp over a tweet, or the 18-year-old Iranian writing on women's rights (later released).

Though undesirable content blocked online often includes material that many people might agree is objectionable, like child pornography, illegal gambling, and copyright infringement, governments are also moving to block access to information around political, social and human rights issues. Fifteen of the countries surveyed substantially blocked political content as the result of official or unofficial national policy to keep users from getting to thousands of websites broadcasting news they deem inappropriate. Such blocking is usually carried out by Internet Service Providers as instructed by the government. Some countries, including China, can even scan for users searching for specific banned keywords.

Further, at least 12 governments were found to be using cyberattacks to disrupt the online networks of activists, though attacks by nonstate actors were also found to pose an increasingly dangerous problem. China has been a major source of such attacks, including denial of service attacks on human rights groups, email messages sent to foreign journalists containing malicious spy software and hacking raids on financial, defense and technology companies.

And as seen in the case of Egypt, governments often have the ability to shut off the country's connection to international Internet traffic. In some countries, Internet services are state-tun, whereas in others, competitive private ISPs hold control, but with ultimate control over the country's Internet access lies with the government. This "kill switch" over the web has already seen use, as in China from July 2009 to May 2010, when authorities cut off connections in Xinjiang while security forces carried on with mass arrests. Less dramatically, if not less harmfully, some governments can slow down connection speeds at will.

Iran, scored as the least free country for web use, dropped a full 13 points on its freedom score from 2009.

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