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World: NGO Highlights Increasing Internet Censorship

  • Julie Corwin

http://gdb.rferl.org/ADF9F91E-2358-402B-8598-F9D5B532869D_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/ADF9F91E-2358-402B-8598-F9D5B532869D_mw800_mh600.jpg An Internet cafe in Grozny, capital of the Russian Republic of Chechnya (file photo) (RFE/RL) June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- State censorship of the Internet is growing and the techniques used are becoming increasingly sophisticated, according to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a partnership of British, US, and Canadian universities.


The group has released an initial list of countries engaged in Internet censorship, which includes China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The group believes that states will target other means of electronic communication next, such as mobile phone text messaging.


Although as many as 25 countries make the current list of countries that engage in Internet censorship, the list is by no means exhaustive, according to Ron Deibert, one of OpenNet Initiative's principal investigators and director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.


Researchers at the ONI limited their first investigation -- carried out during 2006 -- to just 40 countries in part because of limited resources. But even a partial snapshot of the international landscape shows that a growing number of states are filtering the Internet.


Political Blocking

"Text messaging over cellular networks, I think, [is] going to be the next battleground where states are going to intervene," one expert says.

The type of websites governments try to block varies from country to country, but prime targets have been blogs by individuals along with the websites of political parties and local NGOs. Also censored have been Google Maps; youtube; and skype, a low-cost service for making long-distance telephone calls.


Some countries, such as Uzbekistan, allow most international websites without much interference while extensively blocking local content. ONI ranks Uzbekistan as one of 10 countries that engage in "substantial political blocking," along with China, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.


Why does the Uzbek government bother to exert control over the Internet, something that only an estimated 3 percent of the country's population uses? One reason, according to Deibert, is that the Internet enjoys great credibility among users in this part of the world and plays a "disproportionately important role" relative to other types of media.


"The Internet is seen as the one place where you can get unbiased information," Deibert says.


In addition, Deibert point outs that statistics illustrating the low rates of Internet "penetration" can be misleading, because they understate the Internet's wider reach. In many parts of the former Soviet Union, Internet access is shared through places of work or at Internet cafes.


Internet access is less restricted in Uzbekistan's neighboring countries, although some steps have been taken to restrict or regulate the Internet. In Kyrgyzstan, the ONI found "very little Internet filtering." However, in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan some websites have "deregistered" or suspended by government order, the group says.


In Belarus, bloggers and independent media have faced criminal prosecution for alleged defamation and slander. In Ukraine, authorities have enlisted organizations to survey Internet content in order to "protect national security" and limit other forms of "undesirable" information.


In Azerbaijan, authorities have tried to remove politically sensitive material from cyberspace. However, in one case, a banned website that was critical of the government's plan to raise prices was restored and its author, who had earlier been detained, was released from police custody.


ONI has not yet done a study of Armenia and Georgia, and researchers tried to determine if Internet filtering is taking place in Russia and Turkmenistan, but the group says test results were inconclusive because of "limitations on testing methodology."


Some Countries Haven't Gotten Around To It Yet


Some countries allow the Internet to operate freely. ONI identified Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Israel as having an "open Internet."


An Internet cafe in China (epa file photo)

But in the case of Afghanistan, Deibert is not certain that the country's relative freedom is the result of their authorities' commitment to freedom of expression. They could simply be distracted.


"I think in a place like that the security issues are so immediate that something like Internet content filtering is a bit down the horizon if at all," Deibert said. "I just think that there are so many more pressing security issues to deal with that the capacity just isn't there at this point."


While even countries with a low percentage of citizens connected to the Internet are filtering content, other electronic means of expression with much higher rates of usage, such as cell phones, are operating without government interference.


But Deibert believes this situation may soon change.


"Text messaging over cellular networks, I think, [is] going to be the next battleground where states are going to intervene," he says.


In April, Cambodian authorities shut off all access to SMS messaging over cellular networks two weeks prior to the national elections in that country.


Details of the OpenNet Initiative's country survey are available on its website. The site also has a tool that lets you find out if a particular site is blocked in any countries.

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