How The Internet Is Used To Repress Free Speech


May 3 is Press Freedom Day and to mark the occasion, New York-based campaign group the Committee to Protect Journalists is outlining some of the ways that free speech is restricted online. The results make important — and sobering — reading.

In a report published on the CPJ site, coordinator Danny O’Brien outlines “the 10 tools of online oppressors”.

Some of the techniques you probably know about: Iran’s predilection for blocking Web sites and services and Egypt’s decision to flip the Internet kill switch in the days when Hosni Mubarak’s rule was verging on collapse. And, of course, a number of different countries regularly imprison journalists, bloggers and others who dare to challenge political regimes.

But there are a few examples of less obvious restrictions that the report also points out. Take Cuba, which manages to keep a lid on online dissent by the simple method of not having Internet connectivity in the first place. It’s a similar situation in countries like North Korea and Burma, where only a tiny elite — who are totally invested in the status quo — are granted Internet access.

Even when infrastructure is in place, it can be manipulated in important ways. Ethiopia rarely makes headlines these days, but the government has gone to great lengths to expand the network as it tries to shake off a national history of extreme poverty. But in attempting to become a hypermodern nation, it has also discovered that there are new avenues of control: as the CPJ report explains, the government is exercising an astonishing amount of control over that connectivity. Political news is heavily filtered, and foreign information sources are shut down where possible.

As O’Brien states:

Many of the oppressors’ tactics show an increasing sophistication, from the state-supported email in China designed to take over journalists’ personal computers, to the carefully timed cyber-attacks on news websites in Belarus. Still other tools in the oppressor’s kit are as old as the press itself, including imprisonment of online writers in Syria, and the use of violence against bloggers in Russia.

And if none of that concerns you, then remember that these techniques may already apply to your own life in some way — a report issued by American NGO Freedom House last month suggests that “even in more democratic countries — such as Brazil India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom — internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance”. Curtailing freedom of speech isn’t something that just happens to other people– it could happen to you too.

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