Internet recently turned 30, but it could be easily dubbed as 13 going on 30 looking at the ways in which it’s being dealt with by government authorities who are attempting to clamp the freedom of the online world—much like parents try to restrict their wayward teenagers. The very open and free nature of Internet was threatened in the 2012 as government around the world tried to clamp the service. While these attempts were met with protests from netizens, we can’t afford to let the guard down in the coming year or our Internet freedom will be seriously affected.
The recently published Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, highlighted the increasing trend of censoring the web across the world. Out of the 47 countries it surveyed, it discovered that as many as 19 countries have since 2011 adopted policies to censor the web, which effectively hampers online speech. While it found Estonia with the greatest degree of Internet freedom, countries like Iran, Cuba and China were found to be on the other extreme.
Governments of many countries are playing the Orwellian script by introducing draconian laws to censor the web. Let’s take a look at Internet censorship followed in some countries that drew lot of attention in the past year.
Map showing Internet censorship across the world (Image Source)
People's Republic of China is known to have an iron grip over the Internet as well as traditional media and other means of communication. It has various regulations in place when it comes to use of Internet usage for its citizens, who happen to be amongst the world’s largest population of Internet connection. This high level of censorship seems politically motivated, as was evident from incidents of arrests of individuals who used the medium to make their voice heard, showing dissent against the countries political scenario. Most recent incident that grabbed headlines across the globe was the plight of blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who was placed under house arrest for exposing government malpractices and later managed to flee to US. While it was the most discussed issue the world over thanks to censorship, the majority of the Chinese population remained in dark about the developments.
China has in place intricate system that’s more like an Intranet and thus allows it to control the web. It also has in place human censors who take down and weddle out content that is deemed unfit. While its own online news sites are heavily censored, this censorship also extends to international news sites. Time and again it has blocked access to international news sites that have criticised the Chinese government or even issues related to censorship. For most of Chinese Internet users, censorship is the order of the day and they have to practice self-censorship when using Internet or be ready to pay the price, as online content is under heavy surveillance. However, activists in the country have so far managed to work their way around the blocks and gain access to prohibited sites like Twitter and Facebook using proxy servers and other means to make their voices heard. But according to latest reports, users accessing blocked sites and services using proxy servers were finding it difficult to do so. Experts are of the opinion that the Chinese censors have found a way to even encrypt the proxy access. Also, a new proposal by one of China’s governing body seeks to make it mandatory for users to use their real identities when using the Internet. If passed, this law will prove to be quite detrimental.
Since the past couple of years, the instances of Internet censorship in India has increased manifold. In 2011, India adopted the new ‘IT Rules 2011’ that supplemented the IT Act 2000. These rules made it mandatory for Internet intermediaries to remove objectionable content within 36 hours of receiving complaint. But the terms included were vague and open to interpretations. These rules received sharp criticism, but they have prevailed. In 2011, government also drew flak as it asked major sites like Google, Facebook and Yahoo to ‘pre-screen’ content and remove any objectionable, defamatory content from going live. It was alleged that the government urged the Internet companies to use human beings and not machines to do the needful.
Later in 2012, these companies were dragged to court of law over the same. The Internet companies on their part stood their ground and refused to comply with these terms. However, the Google Transparency Report points out to the increased request from government to take down objectionable content and even seek information pertaining to users account. We witnessed numerous instances of attempts to censor Internet right from arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and blocking of this site to blocking of sites by ISP over concerns of privacy, suspension of Twitter accounts allegedly for fanning rumours during the recent Assam violence and even arrests over posts on social networking sites. While India falls under ‘partially free’ category, when it comes to Internet freedom, the increasing attempts of surveillance and censorship have raised concerns amongst the Internet watchdog agencies around the world.
United States of America
United States of America – a country that has witnessed widespread protest against bills that seeked to curb Internet freedom – remains largely free from Internet censorship as is seen and practised in countries around the world. We have witnessed the highly publicised battle against controversial bills like Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). These laws, if they had come into effect, would have had an impact not only in the US, but also many other countries of the world. Anti-SOPA movement in particular garnered support from popular sites like Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla etc. as they blacked-out their sites for 24 hours. Vigilant netizens and pro-Internet activists ensured that these bills didn’t become a reality.
What may play a role is the presence of Silicon Valley and the fact that US happens to be the home of all the major tech companies of the world. Economic concerns ensure that these tech giants have a say in the proceedings. However, there have been increased monitoring of social networking sites in the recent years. For instance, microblogging site Twitter was issued requests to access personal data of users, particularly those associated with organisations like WikiLeaks and even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Another incident that created quite a furore and received flak was The New York Police Department’s initiative to monitor online activities of Muslim student groups, which according to reports was underway since 2006.
The role of Internet in aiding revolution came forth during the civil unrest in Egypt, as the country took to streets in a bid to end the 30-year long tyrannical regime of its President Hosni Mubarak. What came to the aid of the common man waging the war against the authorities was the anonymity provided by the Internet, as it was being thoroughly used as a tool to spread information about the on-ground activities, rally supporters and most importantly, bringing to the world the voices against the atrocities of the regime. Of course, the government was quick on its toes and did attempt to block the Internet, but was largely unsuccessful in doing so. Internet played such a crucial role in the revolution that the Egypt revolution was popularly dubbed as Facebook Revolution. A Google employee Wael Ghonim, who founded a Facebook page condemning the death of an Egyptian youth at the hands of the police, became the face of the revolution. He was arrested by the authorities as he urged people to join the revolution via social networking. His arrest and subsequent release garnered media attention around the world. It garnered more support for the revolution and built pressure on the Egyptian authorities.
Post the revolution, the current military administration is taking no chances. It maintains control over the Internet and social media in particular. It has in place monitoring tools to keep a check on the online activities of its netizens. Several cases of online activists and bloggers facing the wrath of the authorities have come forth in the past year. Another effect of the Egypt revolution is that it has led to increased censorship on the Internet by governments of many of the Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia.
Tahrir Square in Egypt (Image Source)
India’s neighbor Pakistan is also reeling under increased instances of Internet censorship. Incidents of blocking sites are on the rise. While most of the clampdown has been against pornographic content on the web, increasingly, it has also been done to block sites that pose no apparent threat and seem politically motivated. For instance, it blocked the website of a popular magazine ‘Rolling Stone’ stating that it contained pictures of scantily-clad females. But the real reason could be an article published in the magazine that highlighted the rise in military spend. Facebook was also temporarily blocked over the whole ‘Draw Mohammed Day’ contest controversy. What made news more recently was the subsequent unblocking and re-blocking of YouTube. The site was banned for over hundred days owing to the anti-Islam movie 'Innocence of Muslims', which incited much ire across the world. Recently, when it was unblocked, many media channels pointed out that the video that caused such furore, owing to which the site was blocked in the first place, was still accessible on the site. This resulted in authorities blocking the site again. According to reports, Pakistani authorities also plan to have in place a national automated URL filtering and blocking system.
Main image credit: Getty Images