Beset by online surveillance and content filtering, netizens fight on
This report, which presents the 2012 list of countries that are “Enemies of the Internet” and “under surveillance,” updates the report published on 12 March 2011.
The last report, released in March 2011 at the climax of the Arab Spring, highlighted the fact that the Internet and social networks have been conclusively established as tools for protest, campaigning and circulating information, and as vehicles for freedom. In the months that followed, repressive regimes responded with tougher measures to what they regarded as unacceptable attempts to “destabilize” their authority. In 2011, netizens were at the heart of the political changes in the Arab world and elsewhere. They tried to resist the imposition of a news and information blackout but paid a high price.
At the same time, supposedly democratic countries continued to set a bad example by yielding to the temptation to prioritize security over other concerns and by adopting disproportionate measures to protect copyright. Internet users in “free” countries have learned to react in order to protect what they have won. Some governments stepped up pressure on technical service providers to act as Internet cops. Companies specializing in online surveillance are becoming the new mercenaries in an online arms race. Hacktivists are providing technical expertise to netizens trapped by a repressive regime’s apparatus. Diplomats are getting involved. More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.
New media keep pushing back the boundaries of censorship
Online social networks complicate matters for authoritarian regimes that are trying to suppress unwanted news and information. It was thanks to netizens that Tunisians learned about the street vendor who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid and Egyptians learned about Khaled Said, the young netizen who was beaten to death by police outside an Alexandria Internet café. It was thanks to social networks that Sidi Bouzid and Khaled Said became news stories and went on to become cornerstones of the Arab Spring.
The revolution of microblogs and opinion aggregators and the faster dissemination of news and information that results, combined with the growing use of mobile phones to livestream video, are all increasing the possibilities of freeing information from its straightjacket. The mixing of journalism and activism has been accentuated in extreme situations such as Syria, where ordinary citizens, appalled by the bloodshed, are systematically gathering information for dissemination abroad, especially by the international news media, so the outside world knows about the scale of the brutal crackdown taking place.
Even the total news and information blackout in North Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom,” is being challenged. Mobile phones give those who live near the Chinese border the possibility of being linked to the rest of the world. And the border is sufficiently porous to allow mobile phones, CDs, DVDs and USB flash drives containing articles and other content to be smuggled in from China.
In Turkmenistan, an “Information 2.0” war was started by a deadly explosion at an arms depot in the Ashgabat suburb of Abadan in July 2011. For the first time, netizens managed to break through the regime’s wall of silence by using their mobile phones to film video of the explosion and its aftermath and post it online. They subsequently paid a high price.
Saudi Arabia’s relentless censorship has not been able to prevent women from fighting for the right to drive or vote and getting their fight relayed on the Internet, attracting the international community’s attention and, as a result, a degree of attention within the country.
In 2011, use of online information to rally support was not limited to “political” goals. The Internet also buzzed with condemnation of corruption and social abuses, including the protests by the residents of the Chinese village of Wukan against the seizure of their farmland by unscrupulous officials, and the documentation of electoral fraud in Russia.
In Vietnam, it is still dangerous to blog about the Chinese-run bauxite mines and their disastrous impact on the environment. The highland region where the mines are located is virtually sealed off. Its few visitors cannot take cameras, video-cameras or smartphones with them. The aim is to prevent the dissemination of potentially-embarrassing video footage. The Bauxitevietnam.info website is nonetheless managing to obtain information and is doing its best to cover the situation.
Internet and mobile phone shutdowns become commonplace
Repressive regimes have learned the lesson. Keeping the media at bay, intimidating witnesses and blocking access to a few news websites are not enough to ensure the success of a news blackout. A much more effective way is to seal off the area concerned to prevent unwanted witness from entering and any digital content from leaving, and to cut off communications by blocking SMS messaging and by shutting down Internet access and mobile phone services in a temporary or targeted manner.
Egypt showed the way at the height of the demonstrations at the end of February 2011 by cutting Internet access for five days, an unprecedented move. Other countries, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Kazakhstan, have blocked SMS for the first ones or suspended the Internet for the last one during elections or unrest, or even ahead of anticipated unrest. China uses the well-tested tactic of suspending communications in cities or provinces when it loses control of the situation. Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were the first victims.
Nonetheless, shutting down the Internet is a drastic solution that can create problems for the authorities and can hurt the economy. Slowing the Internet connection speed right down is more subtle but also effective as it makes it impossible to send or receive photos or videos. Iran is past master at this. Syria’s censors also play with the Internet connection speed, fluctuations being a good indicator of the level of repression in a given region.
Bahrain is an example of a news blackout succeeding thanks to an impressive combination of technical, judicial and physical censorship methods.
More content filtering
As soon as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt got under way, most regimes that censor the Internet quickly reinforced online content filtering in a bid to head off any possibility of similar unrest spreading to their own countries. Some regimes have adopted filtering as standard tool of governance, one that strengthens their hold on power. Livestreaming sites and social networks are often the most affected.
In Uzbekistan, the government blocked access to forums where ordinary members of the public discussed the Arab revolutions. In China, the word “Jasmine” and the word “Occupy” followed by the name of a Chinese city were blocked online. In Belarus, where there were major demonstrations, the social network Vkontakte was rendered inaccessible. The Kazakh authorities reacted in a similarly disproportionate manner, blocking not only a few “extremist” sites but also the entire LiveJournal blog platform.
Turkey seems to have backed away from an announced plan, bordering on the ridiculous, to censor 138 words online. It has nonetheless created a system of online content filtering which, although optional, is seen as a veiled form of censorship.
The new Thai government boasts that more online content has been blocked in the past few months than in the previous three years. The grounds given for this new threat to freedom of expression is the need to combat lèse-majesté.
Continuing vigilance is needed in Tunisia where Ammar 404, the nickname for the online filtering and surveillance system established by deposed President Ben Ali, could be revived as a result of a possible judicial decision to require filtering for pornographic content.
South Korea has decided to increase the number of blocked websites in response to the North’s propaganda. Tajikistan, which does not figure in this report, has blocked Facebook and news websites while Pakistan is accused of wanting to build its own Great Electronic Wall.
More content removal, pressure on technical service providers
Censors are increasingly trying to enlist private-sector Internet companies in online surveillance and censorship. Some cooperate, others resist. Under government pressure, Chinese micro-blogging websites such as Sina Weibo have had to hire thousands of moderators and now require users to register under their real name.
Website hosting companies are under growing pressure to remove content in response to “notice and take down” process, a procedure likely to lead to abuses, as UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue has stressed. In Thailand, Prachatai news website editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn is facing a possible 20-year jail sentence for failing to react with sufficient speed when told to remove comments posted by site visitors that were critical of the monarchy.
India is one of the countries where more and more pressure is being put on Internet service providers and website hosting companies. The authorities there are trying to persuade them to provide a preview of content so that anything “shocking” or liable to provoke sectarian strife can be eliminated.
Threat to Net neutrality and online free speech from “right to be forgotten”
More and more individuals are requesting that information involving them be deleted from online archives on the grounds of a supposed “right to be forgotten” or “right to digital oblivion.” European commissioner for justice Viviane Reding fuelled concern on 8 November by referring to a proposed directive that would allow anyone to request the deletion of content of a personal nature “for legitimate reasons.”
A generalized “right to oblivion,” enshrined in a law, would be hard to reconcile with online freedom of expression and information. Such a law would be hard to implement in practice and could place an impossible obligation on content editors and hosting companies – the complete erasure of online content. A thorough debate is need to determine whether individual rights are not already sufficiently guaranteed by existing legal provisions on the right to privacy, media offences, personal data and recourse to the courts.
Surveillance getting more effective and more intrusive
Internet content filtering is growing but Internet surveillance is growing even more. Censors prefer to monitor dissidents’ online activities and contacts rather than try to prevent them from going online. The police chief in the United Arab Emirates, for example, has acknowledged that the police monitor social networks.
The security services no longer interrogate and torture a prisoner for the names of his accomplices. Now they want his Facebook, Skype and Vkontakte passwords. It is the same in Bahrain, Turkmenistan or Syria.
The protection of networks of dissidents and reporters’ sources is one of the leading challenges in the fight for information. Foreign reporters visiting sensitive countries should take special precautions in accordance with local conditions. It is no longer enough to take a bullet-proof vest when setting off for a war zone or troubled region. A “digital survival kit” is also needed to encrypt information, anonymize communications and, if necessary, circumvent censorship.
Attempts to “phish” for social network usernames and passwords have been reported in Syria and Iran, as well as the use of false security certificates. The attempts were reported in Syria after the authorities had stopped blocking access to Facebook – something that was clearly done not as a conciliatory gesture but in order to facilitate surveillance.
The neutralization of encryption, anonymization and circumvention tools is also being prioritized by repressive regimes. Iran is now capable of blocking https and the ports used by Virtual Private Networks. China is able to restrict the number of IP addresses that can connect to the international network at the same time.
To enhance their surveillance abilities, repressive regimes turn to specialized companies for ever more effective equipment and software for filtering, monitoring and Deep Packet Inspection. The SpyFiles which WikiLeaks has published are a mine of information on the subject. The companies they use are very often western ones that have been lured by a very lucrative market.
They include the US company BlueCoat, criticized for its activities in Syria, the French company Amesys, which supplied Col. Gaddafi, and Vodafone, the target of an ANHRI suit in Egypt. The Italian company AreaSpa finally pulled out of Syria after an international campaign criticizing its cooperation with the Assad regime. The European Parliament has adopted a resolution supporting tougher regulation of exports to repressive countries. A bill with similar aims is currently before the US congress.
In her book Consent of the Networked, journalist and Internet specialist Rebecca MacKinnon has rightly stressed the need for Internet users the world over to raise questions about the way technology is used in order to ensure that their rights and freedoms are protected.
Propaganda rules the Web
North Korea has taken its propaganda war against its southern neighbour on to the Web, establishing a presence on social networks. Cuban propaganda continues to attack bloggers who criticize the government, accusing them of being mercenaries working for the American “empire”.
China has signed up “50-cents”, bloggers paid to post messages endorsed by the party, ever since the disturbances that shook in Inner Mongolia after a protesting herder was killed by a truck. Propaganda messages like this one have taken root on the Internet: “Dear students and friends, it was just a road accident. Some people with an ulterior motive have interpreted as an ethnic conflict, or linked to oil and gas. The government is taking this case very seriously … We hope that students will not believe the rumours …” The government is believed to have an arsenal of 40,000 microblogs to communicate with the population.
Syria’s cyber army is expert in the art of trolling the Facebook walls of opponents and dissidents, often with the aim of discrediting them, and to drown out critical comments with a tide of praise for the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Twitter accounts have been created to exploit the #Syria hashtag, sending out hundreds of tweets with keywords that link to sports results or photos of the country.
Bahrain is spending millions to polish its image abroad and give the impression that the country has returned to normal. This has been capped by the announcement that the 2012 Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, cancelled last year, will go ahead in April.
Cyber attacks in the form of distributed denials of service (DDoS) are widespread. Last year saw the rise of groups of hacker such as Anonymous, which were behind cyber attacks on the Tunisian, Egyptian and Syrian governments’ websites.
Governments are often behind attempts to hack news websites or independent sites. Even Eritrea was hit. Opposition sites were blocked just as the United Nations was approving sanctions against the country. Sri Lankan sites were also victims of cyber attacks. On the eve of the parliamentary election in Russia, a series of coordinated cyber attacks and arrests of journalists and bloggers took place with the aim of stifling political discussion, which can only take place freely via the Internet.
During the demonstrations in Belarus, the Internet service provider BelTelecom redirected web users trying to connect to the Vkontakte social network to sites containing malicious software.
Besides a regular army, every country now has a cyber army, which may or may not be official. The reputation of the Chinese cyber police is well established and the Syrian and Iranian cyber armies also play a major role.
Getting rid of awkward witnesses
2011 was the deadliest year for netizens, its violence unmatched in the time that dissidents and human rights campaigners have been making widespread use of the Web. Several were killed in Bahrain, Mexico, India and Syria. Dozens of others are probably still to be identified and there will undoubtedly be still more to add to the toll, particularly in Syria.
In Mexico, drug cartels hit social network users directly. Three netizens and one journalist were shot dead in cold blood. The headless body of a Mexican Internet activist was found in Nuevo Laredo on 9 November. The victim, nicknamed “Rascatripas” (Belly-Scratcher), moderated the website “Nuevo Laredo en Vivo” which exposed organized crime. A message left beside the body proclaimed: “This happened to me for not understanding that I shouldn’t report things on social networks.”
On 9 April 2011, the netizen Zakariya Rashid Hassan died in custody in Bahrain, a week after he was arrested and charged with inciting hatred, disseminating false news, promoting sectarianism and calling for the overthrow of the government on online forums.
At least seven media workers had already been killed as a result of their work in Syria by the end of February this year. Netizens who also paid with their lives included Basil Al-Sayed, Ferzat Jarban and Soleiman Saleh Abazaid.
Raids and roundups
As netizen numbers grow, more and more of them are at risk. At least 199 cases of arrests of netizens were recorded in 2011, a 31-percent increase compared with the previous year. Today, at least 120 netizens are in prison because of their activities. China, followed by Vietnam and Iran, has the largest number of netizens in prison again this year.
On 16 February this year, a raid was carried out at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, similarly in Turkmenistan after an explosion at an arms depot near Abadan killed many civilians. Iran and Vietnam have also used similar methods. Vietnam has attacked Catholic networks and China regularly arrests netizens and dissidents to intimidate their followers. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo remains behind bars.
Egypt jailed its first political prisoner of the post-Mubarak era, the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad who was convicted for criticizing the armed forces.
House arrests and “fake releases” abound. China has made this a speciality, as the blogger Hu Jia and cyber-dissident Hada, who campaigns for the rights of the Mongol people, discovered. Vietnam has also used this practice.
Inhuman treatment, pressure and unfair tactics
Many Syrian and Bahraini netizens have been tortured in custody. Iranian authorities in particular favour extracting confessions from dissidents then broadcasting them on television. In Egypt bloggers have reported being subjected to degrading treatment during questioning by security forces.
The “UAE five”, a group of netizens and activists accused of online subversion and jailed in the United Arab Emirates, were accused of being traitors, as were their families.
In Bahrain, the noted dissident Nabeel Rajab is regularly smeared in the media as well as being subjected to physically assault.
In Cuba, a pitched battle is in progress between pro-government bloggers and their “alternative” counterparts who criticize the government. The latter, including the blogger Yoani Sanchez, have been the target of a smear campaign in the state-run media and on foreign propaganda sites.
Chains of support
Bonds have been created between blogospheres and citizens throughout the world have started relaying calls for solidarity, as well as startling images and shocking stories. Global Voices, the international network of bloggers and citizen journalists, has played an important role in the dialogue between online communities and NGOs that campaign for freedom of expression.
In order to combat increasingly competent censors, self-styled “hacktivists” have been giving technical assistance to vulnerable netizens to help them share information in the face of pervasive censorship. The campaigns on behalf of the Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad and Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi have transcended international borders. The hashtag #OpSyria, started by Telecomix – a decentralised network of net activists committed to freedom of expression – has allowed Syrians to broadcast videos of the crackdown.
Last year also saw the development of tools to bypass censorship and blocking of Web access, such as “Internet in a suitcase” and FreedomBox. Cyber freedom activists are working flat-out to respond to increasingly effective censorship tools.
Diplomats enter the picture
Freedom of expression on the Internet is no longer the sole preserve of dissidents, geeks and censors. Diplomats have followed in their wake. Statements and joint texts issued by international organizations and coalitions of countries on Internet freedom have multiplied, from the report by Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, who last June acknowledged Internet access as a basic right, to the ruling by the European Court of Justice condemning Internet filtering and its adverse effects on freedom of expression.
At a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in late February, the high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, deplored restrictions on the Internet and the arrests of bloggers in some countries. She declared: “The Internet has transformed human rights movements. States can no longer exercise control based on the notion of monopoly over information.”
The U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to approve a statement guaranteeing online freedoms, believing “rights exercised in cyberspace deserve as much protection as those exercised in real space”.
For their part, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan defended the principle of a code of good conduct for the Internet, a concept that in reality is aimed as legitimizing censorship.
Democracies have a poor record
Some democratic countries are far from blameless. The free flow of news and information online often loses out to internal security, the war on terrorism and cyber crime, and even the protection of intellectual property.
Monitoring of the Internet has been stepped up in India since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Russia habitually describes sites that do no more than criticize the Kremlin as “extremist” to justify closing them down. Canada has introduced repressive Internet legislation under the label of the fight against paedophilia.
The United Kingdom, whose Digital Rights Bill aimed at protecting copyright has been singled out by U.N. Commissioner La Rue, went through a difficult period during the riots last August. In a worrying development, the Canadian company Research In Motion, manufacturers of the Blackberry, made the personal details of some users available to the police without a prior court order.
Despite international condemnation and the fact that its laws are outdated, France still applies the Loppsi Internet security law, which provides for official filtering of the Web, and the Hadopi law, which allows for Web access to be cut off to prevent illegal downloading of copyright content, despite several unsuccessful cases. Decrees ordering the application of other laws show that the usual reaction of the authorities is to impose filtering. Australia has yet to scrap its national filtering system, despite waning support and the fact that the type of content it is designed to cover may change.
Speeches by U.S. officials on the importance of the fight against online censorship and their financial support for anti-censorship tools is belied by the treatment of WikiLeaks (see the Reporters Without Borders report on the United States and the Internet). Using Visa and MasterCard to cut off its access to funds has hampered the site’s operations. Bradley Manning, suspected of being one of WikiLeaks’ informers, has been detained for several months in dreadful conditions. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is the subject of a “secret indictment” which Reporters Without Borders urges the U.S. authorities to clarify.
Response of Internet users and netizens of the “free world”
Internet users in Western countries cut their teeth with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many of them took to the streets to protest against the repressive U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), which sacrificed Internet freedom for the sake of copyright protection. The operation Stop SOPA and the 24-hour blackout observed by many websites, including Wikipedia, mobilised Web users throughout the world who were potentially affected by these bills to an unprecedented extent.
The campaign took off again with a new wave of protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which up till then had left most people indifferent despite campaigns by the NGOs La Quadrature du Net and Reporters Without Borders. Netizens from all sides understood that these bills could affect on their day-to-day activities.
Eastern Europe spearheaded the campaign. Several governments held off ratification. Resistance to ACTA is stronger than ever and the treaty may not see the light of day. Vigilance must be maintained. The next target for Internet activists could be the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED), proposed by the European Union to clamp down on infringements of intellectual property law, which could potentially lead to large-scale filtering of the Internet. Another blow for Web neutrality.
Internet sovereignty and fragmentation of the Web
Internet sovereignty is an idea that is gaining ground in the minds of national leaders, whether repressive or not. Others have followed the example of the national platform created in Burma in 2010. Several times in 2011, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, true to his nationalist policies, announced the creation of a national Web, a "clean" version of the Internet with its own search engine and messaging service. This may mean two different types of access, one for the authorities and another for the rest of the population, similar to the way the Internet is now structured in Burma. Belarus requires commercial companies to register the websites they have set up in the country. This does not affect news and information sites for the time being.
Some countries such as North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Cuba, and also Iran, censor Internet access so effectively that they restrict their populations to local intranets that bear no resemblance to the World Wide Web. The decision by Twitter among others to apply location-specific censorship confirms the tendency to fall back on national Webs.
In 2011, the fragmentation of the Internet gathered pace. Web users were granted varying access depending on where they were connected. This is contrary to the original concept of the founders of the Web. Digital segregation is spreading. Solidarity between defenders of a free Internet, accessible to all, is more than ever needed for the information to continue to flow.
The 2012 list of the Enemies of the Internet
Bahrain and Belarus move from “under surveillance” to “Enemies”. Libya and Venezuela had been dropped from the list of countries “under surveillance” while India and Kazakhstan have been added to it.
Bahrain and Belarus, new Enemies of the Internet
Two countries, Bahrain and Belarus, have been moved from the “under surveillance” category to the “Enemies of the Internet” list, joining the ranks of the countries that restrict Internet freedom the most: Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. They combine often drastic content filtering with access restrictions, tracking of cyber-dissidents and online propaganda. Iran and China, in particular, reinforced their technical capacity in 2011 and China stepped up pressure on privately-owned Internet companies in order to secure their collaboration.
Iran has announced the launch of a national Internet. Iran and Vietnam have both launched a new wave of arrests, while the bloody crackdown on protests in Syria is hitting netizens hard and is enabling the regime to perfect its mastery of online surveillance with Iran’s help. Turkmenistan has fought its first battle in the war over Information 2.0 while North Korea, which is developing its online presence for propaganda purposes, is confronted with an increase in smuggling of banned communications equipment across the Chinese border. In Cuba, bloggers supportive of the government and those critical of the regime argue online.
Saudi Arabia has continued its relentless censorship and suppressed coverage of a provincialuprising. Uzbekistan took measures to prevent Uznet from becoming a forum for discussing the Arab springs. There is one light of hope: the situation is improving in Burma, where the military have permitted the release of journalists and bloggers and the unblocking of news websites, but the legislative and technical tools for controlling and monitoring the Internet have yet to be dismantled.
Bahrain offers an example of an effective news blackout based on 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 the major demonstrations.
In Belarus, President Lukashenko’s regime has increased his grip on the Web as the country sinks further into political isolation and economic stagnation. The Internet, a space used for circulating information and mobilizing protests, has been hit hard as the authorities have reacted to “revolution via the social media.” The list of blocked websites has grown longer and the Internet was partially blocked during the “silent protests.” Some Belarusian Internet users and bloggers have been arrested while others have been invited to “preventive conversations” with the police in a bid to get them to stop demonstrating or covering demonstrations. The government has used Twitter to send messages that are meant to intimidate demonstrators, and the main ISP has diverted those trying to access the online social network Vkontakte to sites containing malware. And Law No. 317-3, which took effect on 6 January 2012, reinforced Internet surveillance and control measures.
Movement in “countries under surveillance” list
The countries “under surveillance” list still includes Australia, whose government clings to a dangerous content filtering system; Egypt, where the new regime has resumed old practices and has directly targeted the most outspoken bloggers; Eritrea, a police state that keeps its citizens away from the Internet and is alarmed by its diaspora’s new-found militancy online and on the streets of foreign cities; France, which continues its “three-strikes” policy on illégal downloading, with suspension of Internet access, and wher administrative filtering is introduced by an internal security law and appears with increasing frequency in decrees implementing laws; and Malaysia, which continues to harass bloggers (who have more credibility that the traditional media) in the run-up to general elections.
The “under surveillance” list also includes Russia, which has used cyber-attacks and has arrested bloggers and netizens to prevent a real online political debate; South Korea, which is stepping up censorship of propaganda from its northern neighbour and keeps an array of repressive laws; Sri Lanka, where online media and journalists continue to be blocked and physically attacked; Thailand, where the new government sends bloggers to prison and is reinforcing content filtering in the name of cracking down on lèse-majesté; Tunisia, where freedom of expression is still fragile and content filtering could be reimposed; Turkey, where thousands of websites are still inaccessible, alarming filtering initiatives have been taken and netizens and online journalists continue to be prosecuted; and the United Arab Emirates, where surveillance has been reinforced preventively in response to the Arab Spring.
Venezuela and Libya no longer under surveillance
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.
India and Kazakhstan, new additions to the “under surveillance” category
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 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, a major riot, a strange wave of bombings and the president’s ailing health all helped to increase government tension in 2011 and led to greater control of information, especially online information: blocking of news websites, cutting of communications around the city of Zhanaozen during the riot, and new, repressive Internet regulations.
Thailand and Burma may be about to change places
If Thailand continues down the slope of content filtering and jailing netizens on lèse-majesté charges, it could soon join the club of the world’s most repressive countries as regards the Internet.
Burma could soon leave the Enemies of the Internet list if the country takes the necessary measures. It has clearly embarked on a promising period of reforms, which has included the release of journalists and bloggers and the restoration of access to blocked websites. It must now go further by abandoning censorship altogether, releasing the journalists and bloggers still held, dismantling the surveillance apparatus that was built on the national Internet platform, and repealing the Electronic Act.
Other countries to watch
Other countries have jailed netizens or established a form of Internet censorship. 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, to name just a few.
At the time of writing, Pakistan has invited private-sector companies to bid for the creation of a national Internet filtering and blocking system. Reporters Without Borders has asked the authorities to abandon this project, which would result in the creation of an Electronic Great Wall. If they go ahead, Pakistan could be added to the Enemies of the Internet in 2013.
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