During the revolutions in the Arab World since December 2010, standing government's fates were determined partly by the ability of their people to communicate via online tools and mobile phones. Whenever an uprising started in a new territory, dictators and government officials scrambled
to halt the ability for protestors to communicate in many different ways. Other governments looked on fearfully at how their colleagues were coping or failing to address the challenge posed by the internet, hoping to maybe learn a best-practice or two in digital repression.
The US Government and European Union were quick to respond with all sorts of plans to help the people fighting for reform. In speech after speech, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced large funds to be made available for online dissidents, resulting in projects such as the Digital Defenders Partnership
. The EU responded with its own plan: a No Disconnect Strategy
. Both approaches share the idea of supplying activists and bloggers with the tools to circumvent repression by governments. Another common feature is to engage US and EU companies to support the internet freedom efforts and to discourage the sale of surveillance technology to foreign villains. These initiatives may well end up in a cat-and-mouse game, though, where equipment or code developed to increase online freedom of dissidents only prompts cornered governments to react in more aggressive ways to silence dissent.
Unfortunately, these well-meant efforts are viewed skeptically (and with little credibility) by many, considering that efforts against Wikileaks continue to intensify
, people are increasingly under threat of being disconnected
, citizens are being illegally arrested
and more and more public funds are being spent
on such unreasonable restraints at home.
To get an overview of these developments in the world, it is worth reading the recent Freedom On The Net 2012
report by Freedom House
, a watchdog dedicated to freedom and democracy in the world. The report studies the reactions of 47 nations to challenges posed by the internet and is written by more than 50 researchers, based in the countries that were analyzed. It has been reported
widely that – out of these countries – Estonia and the US score the best in the internet freedom rankings.
On the flipside, though, the researchers spotted some alarming trends beyond mere blocking of information, hacking into email accounts or wiretapping communications, which the US and EU initiatives are designed to overcome. For example:
This year’s findings indicate that restrictions on internet freedom in many countries have continued to grow, though the methods of control are slowly evolving and becoming less visible.
While still naming and shaming countries that block and filter information to limit free expression (we’re looking at you, Bahrain, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Syria, Thailand, and Uzbekistan), the report outlines several the following worrying trends:
1. Criminalizing undesirable speech
with new laws and subsequent arrests of internet users are popular old school ways of cracking down on those who cause a threat to your power. Especially when the competences gained by new cyber security laws are used against citizens, dissidents can be found more easily and can be detained as terrorists. The report highlights some terrible individual cases, such as:
A Pakistani man was sentenced to death in 2011 for sending an allegedly blasphemous text message via his mobile phone.
A 61-year-old man (in Thailand, red.) was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he allegedly sent four mobile phone text messages that were deemed to have insulted the monarchy; several months into his sentence he died in prison due to illness.
Online services hosting user-generated content are also under increased pressure in these countries. Where the US and EU exempt intermediaries for the speech of their users (see the failed attempts of the US government asking Google to remove the Innocence of Muslims
clip), repressive countries simply place the burden of liability on internet companies. Of course, risk averseness ensues and companies are policing their own networks, deleting anything that may be considered undesirable to the dictator. Control by fear at its finest.
2. Propaganda and information manipulation
are still alive and well in 2012. Of the countries analyzed in the report, a staggering 14 employ thousands of professional internet commentators to manipulate online discussions. We've covered some of China's efforts
. Cuba alone employs 1,000 bloggers. Some more mind blowing examples from the report:
China’s paid pro-government commentators, known informally as the “50 Cent Party,” are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, while an Iranian official claimed in mid-2011 that 40 companies had received over $56 million to produce pro-government digital content.
3. Instead of digitally blocking information, 19 of the surveyed countries engaged in physical attacks on those who publish undesirable information
. Journalists have had to deal with intimidation and aggression since the dawn of their profession. However, Freedom House reports a new trend:
In a newly emerging phenomenon, bloggers and citizen journalists in a number of countries were specifically targeted by security forces while reporting from the field during periods of unrest or armed conflict. In Kazakhstan, a blogger was reportedly assaulted by police who held a pistol to his head after he uploaded video footage to YouTube that showed local residents protesting a government crackdown.
Of course, this is no different from targeting film crews who report from the field. However, it now seems that whipping out your smartphone during periods of unrest may cause security forces to hold a gun against your head.
has been constantly increasing over the last two years. The report states:
In the more repressive and technically sophisticated environments, authorities engage in bulk monitoring of information flows, often through a centralized point. Intelligence agencies then gain direct access to users’ communications across a range of platforms—mobile phone conversations, text messages, e-mail, browsing history, Voice over IP discussions, instant messaging, and others. [...] In Belarus, Bahrain, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, activists found that their e-mails, text messages, or Skype communications were presented to them during interrogations or used as evidence in politicized trials.
The current US and EU initiatives to promote freedom on the internet seem capable of limiting the effects of surveillance. This could possibly also reduce the number of dissidents who are criminalized for their speech online, as they are more difficult to trace. However, there is little the West can do to stop dictators from classifying undesirable speech as illegal information and introducing harsh criminal sanctions. This is even more true when the West is setting the wrong example by advocating policies such as SOPA/PIPA and ACTA, where far reaching information control was proposed. Admittedly, the type of information targeted is of a different nature, but employing certain technologies to control information gives their use credibility in the information society.
Some of the US and EU projects are only just getting started, but the first steps, strong rhetoric and intention may also play an important role to undermine dictators' ambitions for information control. Care should be taken, however, that the well meant initiatives do not result in increased physical aggression towards anyone capable of organizing or reporting on uprisings. A cornered foe will fight to the death, so efforts supporting internet freedom should also be combined with diplomacy at the government level and finding a way together. Member of the European Parliament (and my former boss), Marietje Schaake
, has drafted a call for a full Digital Freedom Strategy in the EU Foreign Policy
, which addresses these issues in detail. Much still needs to be done and understood to ensure next year’s report doesn’t announce further innovations in unnoticeable surveillance and more aggression towards bloggers.