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CUBA, CHINA, TUNISIA, IRAN NAMED WORST VIOLATORS OF INTERNET FREEDOM BY FREEDOM HOUSE

China's sophisticated efforts to control the Internet - most recently using regulations that demand video-sharing websites like YouTube to increase censorship - earned it a "not free" rating in Freedom House's new report on Internet and mobile phone freedom.

Freedom House, which examined web freedom issues in 15 countries during 2007 and 2008, listed Cuba, Iran and Tunisia as three other nations it considered "not free" based on barriers to Internet access, limitations on content and violations of users' rights.

In "Freedom on the Net", released to an audience of more than 1,000 bloggers last week in Berlin, Freedom House said while more people are using the web, their rights are increasingly at risk as governments expand their ability to control online activity.

"More than a billion people look to the Internet and mobile phones to provide a new freedom frontier, where they can exercise their right to freedom of expression without repercussion," Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor said in a statement.

"But as access grows, more governments are employing diverse and sophisticated methods to monitor, censor and punish Internet users," she added.

Seven countries studied - Egypt, India, Georgia, Kenya, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey - were considered "partly free" while four others - Brazil, Britain, Estonia and South Africa - were deemed "free."

China tied with Cuba for the country with the most curbs on users' rights, including prosecutions for online activities, surveillance and extra-legal harassment of bloggers.

China has the world's most Internet users, with an estimated 300 million, but "also has the world's most highly-developed censorship apparatus," it said.

Last week, China issued detailed regulations banning videos that depict torture, distort Chinese culture or history, hurt the public's feelings or disparage security forces and leaders, says Freedom House.

The regulations come just days after China's government blocked YouTube and objected to the release of a video that appeared to show Chinese forces beating Tibetans during protests last spring.

China is also a leader in "outsourcing censorship," the practice whereby the authorities and private providers employ "hundreds of thousands of people to monitor, censor and manipulate online content," said the report.

But Cuba received the lowest score overall because of "the Castro regime's near total control over Internet access." "There is almost no access to Internet applications other than email and surveillance is extensive. Cuba is one of the few countries with laws and regulations explicitly restricting and outlawing certain online activities," said Freedom House.

Iran, the report said, "uses a complex system of nationwide content filtering, intimidation, detention and torture of bloggers, and restriction of broadband access to subvert freedom of expression online."

Tunisia has a "multilayered and extensive" filtering and censorship apparatus, said the report. Freedom House said the authorities regularly use three main techniques: automatic blocking of websites that contain certain keywords or phrases; post-publication censorship, whereby individual blog entries or entire blogs are deleted within hours of being posted; and proactive manipulation of content. In 2007, for example, the government put together a small group of people to visit websites and guide discussions in a pro-government direction.

The Tunisian government also frequently uses ordinary criminal charges, such as sexual harassment and defamation, as well as intimidation and physical violence, to oppress online journalists and bloggers.

The report does include some good news.

With the exception of the U.K., Internet freedom is more widespread than press freedom. And in repressive states, Freedom House found that civic activism using the Internet is on the rise. "Citizens are resisting government control by blogging, using code for sensitive keywords and organising protests and advocacy groups through social networks like Facebook," said Freedom House.

Visit these links:
- "Freedom on the Net" (Freedom House): http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=798
- China: Freedom House dismayed by new regulations: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/102128/
(Photo from blawg.lehmanlaw.com)

(8 April 2009)

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