10/18/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Internet Freedom's Less Visible Enemies

By Sanja Kelly and Sarah Cook

A few weeks ago, a Vietnamese court convicted three bloggers who dared to expose state corruption and Iran briefly blocked access to Google's search engine and email service. Earlier in September, the Bahraini authorities declared they would prosecute anyone who criticizes government officials over social media. These are the latest examples of governments' increasing efforts to restrict political speech online.

But while such obviously repressive tactics like imprisoning bloggers or blocking websites continue to be employed in dozens of countries, a growing number of authoritarian governments are using more insidious and less visible tactics to limit political and social speech they view as undesirable.

This is one of the key findings of a new report, Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media, published on September 24 by Freedom House. The study examined obstacles to Internet access, limits on content, and violations of user rights in 47 countries, engaging over 50 international researchers who scrutinized laws and practices concerning Internet freedom and tested accessibility of various websites in their countries.

As independent voices online gain prominence, more regimes are covertly hiring armies of pro-government bloggers to tout the official point of view, undermine public trust in independent sources of information, and counter the influence of websites and activists. The result is that regular users find it more challenging to distinguish between credible information and government propaganda. The tactic, previously evident only in a small set of countries, appeared in nearly one third of those assessed in the study.

In Russia, for example, besides employing hundreds of such commentators, the ruling party reportedly planned to spend over US$300,000 to discredit a prominent opposition blogger. China's paid pro-regime commentators, known informally as the "50 Cent Party," are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, while the Iranian authorities have reportedly spent US$56 million to produce pro-regime content. Paid commentators rarely reveal their official links when posting online, nor do governments inform citizens that state funds are being spent on such projects.

In a different but similarly manipulative tactic, some governments and their sympathizers have hijacked the online presence of their critics and altered the content posted in an effort to deceive the growing audience of citizens who are shifting from state-controlled media to online sources of news. For example, in Venezuela, since August 2011, the blogs and Twitter accounts of at least two-dozen government critics and prominent literary figures have been hacked and hijacked. Fake messages disseminated in their names have supported the government's economic policy, criticized the opposition presidential candidate, and threatened other users.

Alongside technical attacks, physical assaults against online journalist, bloggers, and Internet users have also grown since January 2011, appearing in almost half of the countries we examined, with sometimes fatal consequences. In Syria, government forces used a targeted attack to kill a citizen journalist who had gained international prominence for his live online broadcasts of military assaults on civilians. In Egypt, an online columnist suffered broken wrists after being beaten and sexually assaulted. And in China and Uzbekistan, detained activists and web reporters were forcibly medicated with psychiatric drugs. Those responsible for such violence typically go unpunished, amplifying the deterrent effect for others who may want to criticize the regime.

Many governments are also quietly infringing upon Internet freedom by increasing their technical capacity or administrative authority to access private online correspondence and browsing records. Although some interception of communications may be necessary for fighting crime and terrorism, surveillance powers in many countries are abused for political ends. In Belarus, Bahrain, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, activists had their emails and text messages presented to them during interrogations or used as evidence in politicized trials. Equipment used for surveillance in these repressive environments is often produced by Western companies, raising serious ethical questions about the export policies surrounding such technologies.

As these less detectable tactics for controlling the Internet expand, so do the challenges for supporters of Internet freedom. Nevertheless, steps can be taken to curb some of these abuses. Investigative journalists can follow the money trail to expose paid commentators. The private sector and activists can join forces to increase technical security of vulnerable websites and individual accounts. Governments can be pressured to prosecute those responsible for violence against online commentators. And more transparent and accountable procedures can be instituted for the trade in surveillance technologies.

We have already seen such efforts yield results in some countries. Now we need to ensure their expansion keeps pace with the actions of those who would prefer that curbs on Internet freedom remain invisible.

Sanja Kelly is director of the Freedom on the Net project at Freedom House and Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst at Freedom House.