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In Most Censored Countries, Internet Is Hamstrung or Withheld

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By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator

One big reason for the Internet's success is its role as a universal standard, interoperable across the world. The data packets that leave your computer in Botswana are the same as those which arrive in Barbados. The same is increasingly true of modern mobile networks. Standards are converging: You can use your phone, access an app, or send a text, wherever you are.

But in CPJ's new report, The 10 Most Censored Nations, communications networks are constructed
not to live up to that ideal, but to fit the limitations of press freedom in
each country. The Internet and mobile phones may be transforming how the news
is covered, but CPJ's list shows the extent to which controls on news-gatherers
distort and hamper the growth of the Internet and cellphone use.

The pattern is different in each country, reflecting local
priorities in silencing the independent press. In Belarus and Syria, the Net is
home to unlawful but state-sanctioned hacking and surveillance. In Saudi Arabia, Internet users are
subject to the same harsh controls that are applied to
traditional news media. In Uzbekistan, Internet access is growing, but
censorship is still draconian. In Equatorial Guinea, Internet
and mobile censorship is minimal, but so is the infrastructure.

In fact, the simplest solution many of these countries have
found -- including North Korea, Burma, Cuba, and Eritrea -- is to simply deny
their people access to any modern communications infrastructure at all. The
Internet in these nations is nonexistent, or profoundly limited: in some cases
because of these countries' struggle with poverty, but also because these
governments are suspicious of the dangers of a free and open Net.

What Internet infrastructure does exist often mirrors
political realities on the ground. In Burma, the countries' Internet is effectively divided into three, self-contained
systems: one for the people, one for the government, and one for the military. North
Korea's citizens (unlike the ruling elite) have as much access to the World
Wide Web as they have to any independent media -- which is to say none. And
while Cuba has seen some improvement in availability and
affordability of mobile telephones, the country is still struggling to catch up
after a history of banning private cellphone and computer ownership.

Eritrea stands as a stark example of how a government's uncompromising
approach to media has obstructed the spread of modern communications. In a
continent where mobile telephony has transformed local reporting and economies,
the regime has been slow to allow mobile phones -- (permission was granted only in
2004). The Internet was made available in Eritrea in 2000; the Net on mobiles
is still largely unavailable. All mobile communications pass through EriTel,
the state provider, and the government requires all ISPs to use the
government-controlled Internet gateway.

When a country with advanced systems clamps down on press
freedom, that too affects the state of its communication networks. In the six
years since CPJ last published a list of most censored countries, Iran's media,
and foreign correspondents based there, have suffered increasing setbacks as
hardliners tried to choke off local reporting. At the same time, Iran has been
investing in technology and personnel with the explicit intent of restricting
Internet access. Officials have repeatedly discussed plans to create a national, or "pure," Iranian
Internet, and Iranians face frequent
slowdowns in Internet access. A member of the Iranian parliament's
Net filtering committee described the Internet as "an uninvited guest" in the
country, saying that "because of its numerous problems, severe supervision is
required."

The working Internet is alike, the world over. Every
censored, silenced, and filtered national network is broken in its own way. Each
country on our list has found a unique way to hamper the spread of journalism
online: the end result has been to punish its own citizens with online isolation
and silence.

San Francisco-based CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brien has worked globally as a journalist and activist covering technology and digital rights.

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