Freedom and Censorship: Where the Internet Goes to Die
"As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world." Google's Eric Schmidt said these words to rally against Internet restrictions in North Korea, but they also apply to a number of governments trying to limit online freedoms by controlling the flow of information. By now, most people know that a single text can spark a revolution, unseat a dictator or disrupt power -- and so do governments. And they're worried.
Regulators are adopting policies to muzzle citizens online, quell dissent and consolidate power -- and it's robbing people of the ability to seek out and spread information. In an age where knowledge is currency, keeping citizens in the dark creates a kind of poverty. It corrodes the exchange of ideas, and, in fact, impacts the freedoms for the offline as well.
Even countries with generous civil liberties -- like the U.S. -- are fighting to tighten Internet laws, as shown by SOPA and PIPA. And the prosecution and suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, highlighting the different perceptions of what should, and shouldn't be, online, creating deeply tense situations even in countries considered free.
Many governments limit access to the Internet, but here are a few of the worst cases, and why they're so troublesome:
Despite Kim Jong Un becoming ruler, the isolated country is still an "Internet Black Hole." The Hermit Kingdom has perhaps the tightest controls out there, and often tops the list of "most repressive media environment in the world."
In terms of the number of citizens online, North Korea remains a dark spot on the map. A single ISP controls access to a closed and monitored Intranet, but IT students in Pyongyang are changing things. Air Koryo, an air carrier, put up a Facebook page, and its employees, while avoiding politics, talk to people in English. For a country whose general population remains impoverished -- with an average yearly income of $1,900 -- opening up the Internet will transform the country ideologically and economically in untold ways. But given the tight control over all aspects of life, change will come slowly, and only on its own terms.
The second-most populous country in Africa experienced one of the sharpest declines in Internet freedom in 2012 -- going from bad to worse. The extremely low rate of Internet access is caused, in large part, to poor infrastructure, but even for people who can get online, stringent controls hinder any access to the Web. In a crackdown, for example, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi banned VoIP services, turning Skype and Google Talk conversations into criminal acts. The move tried to protect its telecom business from cheaper Internet services.
Zenawi, who died in August of an undisclosed illness, was credited with Ethiopia's economic growth during his tenure, but often at the cost of human rights. And the ban epitomized that commitment at all costs. It also highlights how governments can sacrifice online freedoms for national gains. But after the Arab Spring, regulators started cracking down on posting critical of its regime, by imprisoning independent journalists and bloggers, often on charges of terrorism.
Ethiopia is relatively stable compared to its African neighbors, and serves as a valuable ally to the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. And in the wake of Zenawi's death, many had hoped Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, considered more moderate and affable than Zenawi, would enact more political freedoms, since comes from one of the smallest ethnic groups in a country. But three months into his term, journalists are still imprisoned under anti-terrorism laws, showing little hope for change, and foreign policy experts fear a more volatile region may emerge.
China has risen, and the Great Firewall holds firm. The government continues to restrict and block the Web, filtering information even as it claims to pursue digital innovation to spur its economy. In the past, Google rallied against it and protested censorship by moving its servers to Hong Kong. But despite the blow, China is winning the war. Google used to tell people when China blocked specific terms, giving a helpful peek into the censorship process. But in 2012, the Internet giant took down that service. Internet activists are discouraged, since the warnings exposed censorship practices in real-time and offered a clear look at what regulators wanted to block.
To bypass the firewall, citizens often use VPNs. But starting in 2011, China beefed up efforts to shut these networks down, attempting to keep up with increasingly sophisticated ways of bypassing its filter. Now, many free VPNs are useless, but you can still get online using a measure called "port randomization." Websites like StrongVPN released tips on how to stay one step ahead, which work for now, but the back and forth will likely continue.
In times of unrest and protest, China is known to shut off entire swaths of communications. And in 2011, one company consolidated all the cyber-cafes in the country, a move to more easily conduct surveillance. China remains a highly censorious place. And the only way to do business within its borders is to comply with requests to remove content.
Don't mess with the Internet laws in Pakistan. Newly connected to a burgeoning IT sector, it experienced a boom in communication technologies. But regulators won't let that translate into a free and open Internet. They have no qualms about shutting down large networks if they don't like what's going on, as shown by their decision to shut off cellular services across the entire province of Balochistan to quell nationalist sentiments.
In addition, officials deal out harsh punishments. In 2011, Abdul Sattar, for example, was sentenced to death for the crime of sending blasphemous texts. Pakistan also passed laws to make it harder to stay private while surfing the Web. In the past, opening an Internet cafe was easy, but laws now require owners to register and document state ID cards with the government.
In response to the Arab Spring, leaders curtailed freedoms by adding advanced tactics, like beefed up website filtering. In 2011, it set aside $500 million to combat what it called a "soft war" it claims enemies are waging via media and online activities. While it blocks all major social media sites, it also restricts content. It also uses excessive punishments: in 2012, three IT professionals and bloggers received death sentences for online infractions.
These five countries are extreme examples, but others -- from Saudi Arabia to Thailand to even democratized countries like South Korea -- are guilty of limiting access to control freedom. North Korea and China limited flow of information to keep people in the dark, while Iran and Pakistan uses restrictions to prevent violations of cultural mores. In Ethiopia, the effort is for economic gains.
As Schmidt said, the world is increasingly connected, and restrictions do the world a disservice. They limit people from the global conversation. And it's imperative the global community try to let everyone in -- to sustain the potential for human progress. The responsibility extends to organizations and outside governments, who must try to influence and change these policies.
That's also why Google's actions are so problematic. The decision to ease up on China illustrates how even principled companies can be influenced by censorious agents. Google's warnings gave China more ammunition to slow down its services. And for now, the Chinese won this round.
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Categories: News Desk