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Freedom House releases report on growing challenges to internet freedom

(Freedom House/IFEX) - 22 September 2011 - Next week, government, business, and civil society representatives will gather at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss the future of the global digital space. This gathering takes place against the backdrop of growing restrictions by repressive regimes on online freedoms. The U.S. and European governments have undertaken significant initiatives to respond to these restrictions, but their initiatives are inadequate to stem, let alone reverse, the decline of freedom on the internet. Stronger action is needed.

Restrictions on the Internet

Even before the Arab Spring had shown the power of the internet to accelerate the free flow of news and views and to bring like-minded citizens together to mobilize for change, authoritarian regimes had introduced extensive controls over digital media. Authoritarian regimes had built pervasive, multilayered systems for online censorship and surveillance. These systems have grown more diverse and sophisticated in the past two years, as documented in Freedom House's 2011 Freedom on the Net report and elsewhere.

Governments increasingly resort to "just-in-time" blocking of online content or social media applications at critical moments, such as periods of unrest. Malawi's government, for example, blocked access to news websites, Facebook, and Twitter in July as part of its clampdown on mass protests. Just-in-time blocking at times has affected a whole country's internet. Access to the internet was cut off entirely in Egypt amidst the January 2011 mass protests calling on then President Hosni Mubarak to step down and in Libya in March 2011 as its leader, Muammar Qaddafi, tried to stem the anti-regime uprising. Moreover, government control of internet infrastructure is increasingly being used to insulate citizens from the global internet. Iran, for instance, is taking steps toward the creation of a national internet to disconnect Iranian users from the rest of the world.

Intermediary liability is on the rise as a method of censorship. Governments increasingly hold hosting companies and service providers liable for the online activities of internet users. In Vietnam and Venezuela, some webmasters and bloggers have disabled the comment feature on their sites to avoid potential liability. Governments also force businesses to police internet use. Belarus, for example, introduced requirements for Internet cafés to check the identity of users and keep a record of their web searches.

Online surveillance appears to have grown more extensive over the past two years. In Iran, for example, the government used intercepted online communications, including activities on Facebook and the Persian-language social media site Balatarin, to prosecute activists involved in protests against the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. Many arrested activists reported that interrogators confronted them with copies of their emails, demanded the passwords to their Facebook accounts, and questioned them about individuals on their friends list.

Digital attacks against human rights and democracy activists have become widespread. The pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army defaced Syrian opposition websites and spammed popular Facebook pages, including that of U.S. President Barack Obama, with pro-regime messages. Sophisticated cyber attacks have also originated from China. These included denial-of-service attacks on domestic and overseas human rights groups, email messages to foreign journalists containing malicious software capable of monitoring the recipient's computer, and a cyber-espionage network, which extended to 103 countries, to spy on the Tibetan government-in-exile. In Belarus, to stifle protests against the fraudulent December 2010 elections, denial-of-service attacks slowed down connections to opposition websites or rendered them inaccessible. Moreover, the country's largest internet service provider, the state-owned Belpak, redirected users from independent media sites to nearly identical clones that provided misleading information, such as the incorrect location of a planned opposition rally. Digital attacks on websites or blogs that are critical of the government have also taken place in several countries rated "partly free" on internet freedom by Freedom House, including Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Russia.

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Click here to read the full report

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