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For all the optimism — much of it well-placed — about the Internet and social tools like Twitter and Facebook helping to create revolutions in the Middle East, there is a corresponding tide of repression, censorship and surveillance by governments aimed at the Internet and the freedoms it allows. A new UNESCO report looks at the scope of these efforts and the emerging effort to create a form of “digital rights” that can counter-balance the attempts of repressive governments to shut down free speech on the Internet. Meanwhile, both Iran and Syria have upped the ante in their attempts to blockade the web.
Iran Wants to Create a “National Internet”
Iran, which shut down almost 70 percent of its Internet during the demonstrations in that country in 2009, has stepped up its efforts to wall off dissent. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal (s nws), Iranian authorities are said to be considering a “national Internet” plan that could disconnect that country from the Internet and confine users to an authorized and government-controlled version. The government is also said to be working on its own computer operating system that would replace Windows and presumably make it easier to build censorship into the computers that citizens use.
In Syria, meanwhile, the government actually loosened earlier restrictions on the Internet and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter — but as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, these moves appear to have been designed in part to make it easier to monitor and apprehend dissidents. For example, there have been a number of reports of Syrian citizens being detained and forced to reveal their Facebook passwords. And there has also been a rise in hacking attempts aimed at dissident websites (as documented by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab) which appear to be government-directed.
UNESCO Hopes to Spur Protection
The UNESCO report, entitled “Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet,” (the full PDF version is available here) is an analysis of existing research into how governments around the world are trying to limit use of the Internet by dissidents, and also how they are using the web — including social media such as Facebook — to monitor and crack down on dissent. The organization also said it hopes the report prompts more protection and support for Internet use and freedom of speech as an essential human right:
Freedom of expression is not an inevitable outcome of technological innovation. It can be diminished or reinforced by the design of technologies, policies and practices – sometimes far removed from freedom of expression. This synthesis points out the need to focus systematic research on this wider ecology shapingthe future of expression in the digital age.
The report notes Internet use has found legal and government protection in a number of jurisdictions, including France — where the French Constitutional Council ruled that the freedom to access “public online communication services” was a basic human right (although that country still went forward with a “three strikes” law to prevent piracy) — and Finland, which last year became the first country to make broadband Internet a fundamental human right (Costa Rica’s highest court has also ruled that the Internet is a fundamental right and mandated the government to provide universal access).
At the same time, however, many governments have also adopted new tools of censorship and surveillance, including deep-packet inspection and various methods of filtering, the report says, as well as IP blocking — which countries such as China use to prevent users from accessing certain websites. The UNESCO study even notes that authorities in Western nations, including the United States, have used social networks to monitor and then apprehend citizens, including one case in which a G-20 protester was arrested for being part of a group that posted messages on Twitter:
One arrest made at a Pittsburgh motel by Pennsylvania State Police was of a 41-year-old New York social worker, named Elliot Madison, for being part of a group that posted messages on the micro-blogging service Twitter that were designed to help protesters at the G-20 summit “avoid apprehension after a lawful order to disperse.”
But the biggest trend the report describes is the increasing determination by repressive governments in countries like Iran and Syria to both shut down dissent online — in some cases by shutting off Internet access completely — and to monitor and track their own citizens. The Egyptian authorities did both of these things during the revolution in that country earlier this year, although their attempts ultimately failed and President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (the former dictator has since been fined by an Egyptian court for his attempts to shut down the Internet).
The UNESCO report also describes some of the initiatives that both public advocacy groups and governments have been making to fight back against these repressive regimes, including the OpenNet Initiative, which is a joint venture between the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard that tracks and catalogues filtering and censorship by governments around the world.
More than anything, the picture that UNESCO paints is of global arms race — but instead of guns and tanks, the weapons are computers and hackers and Internet-tracking tools, and increasingly social networking sites as well.