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Determined Governments Choose Their Internet Weapons

  • Christopher Walker

"Error" or calculated mistake?

"Error" or calculated mistake?

The global economic crisis has brought into sharp relief the precarious condition of traditional media, print media in particular. Newspapers are feeling the pinch from shrinking circulation and dwindling advertising dollars, along with the impact of a broader, inexorable generational shift in news consumption from tactile to digital sources. While traditional forms of media, television first and foremost, remain dominant sources of news in absolute terms, Internet-based and other digital media are ascendant.

Given the unforgiving forces reshaping the traditional news industry and the large hopes pinned on digital media as an enabler of freer expression, a more informed understanding of Internet freedom is essential.

To this end, Freedom House has undertaken an analysis -- the first of its kind -- of the ways in which governments create obstacles to Internet access -- how they place limits on digital content and to what extent they violate users' rights. The study, "Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media." examines these issues in 15 key countries: Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, Estonia, Georgia, India, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Among those countries, both Russia and Iran boast significant and growing online populations. They also represent two different Internet freedom typologies in the "Freedom on the Net" study. Both countries operate under politically illiberal and repressive governing systems and accordingly find themselves in the "Not Free" category in Freedom House's annual survey of media freedom (which has assessed the degree of global freedom for television, radio, and print since 1980). They are also rated "Not Free" in "Freedom in the World," Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. While Iran earns "Not Free" Internet-freedom status, Russia is assessed as a middle performer in the study's "Partly Free" category.

Trouble In Tehran

Iran was among the poorest performers in the analysis, along with other highly restrictive countries such as China, Tunisia, and Cuba. All of these countries are rated "Not Free" in the new study. Iran, like China, features an environment with vibrant online usage. Iran has a user-penetration rate of nearly 25 percent, an estimated 20 million online users; China, at a 22 percent user-penetration rate, has an estimated -- and eye-popping -- 300 million users.

Christopher Walker
This impressive online use is coupled with deep official interference, however. The Iran report in "Freedom on the Net" observes that "although Iranians are active readers and producers of online content, the Iranian regime wields one of the world's most sophisticated apparatuses for controlling the Internet and other digital technologies." The report goes on to note "the Iranian government's strategy for controlling Internet content includes three general techniques: automated filtering, manually produced blacklists, and active posting of pro-government information."

The Iranian authorities create extensive obstacles to Internet access, including regular blocking of social -networking sites (including, for a while, Facebook), and implementing wide-ranging censorship efforts targeting political and social-reform issues. The government has also created a distinctly freedom-unfriendly environment by serving as the sole provider of mobile-phone services and restricting broadband access for a majority of users.

Furthermore, the Iranian authorities have shown an increasing willingness to prosecute and harass bloggers. For example, Esmail Jafari, editor of the blog "Rah Mardom," was detained for three weeks in April 2008 on charges of espionage. Omidreza Mirsayafi, 29, died under unclear and disturbing circumstances in prison custody on March 17, soon after beginning a two-year prison sentence for posting comments on his blog about Iran's leaders.

And the Iranian authorities appear poised to consider even more draconian measures against bloggers who offer social and political commentary: On March 26, it was reported that Iran is contemplating a law that could impose the death penalty on bloggers who post "offensive" material.

Russia's Clogged Artery

Russia, for its part, extends greater freedom to the Internet compared to the broadcast and print media. Since 2004, Freedom House has rated Russia's traditional media "Not Free." Television, in particular, has suffered a grim fate. During Vladimir Putin's tenure as president, the Kremlin neutered any semblance of independent television reporting on news of political consequence.

The Internet therefore has become an increasingly important artery for informing and engaging Russian audiences. But as Internet penetration has increased, so too have the authorities' measures to interfere with users' rights.

The "Freedom on the Net" report on Russia observes that "Internet and mobile-phone penetration continues to grow, and the government largely supports the dissemination of these technologies." Estimates suggest that over the past decade the number of Internet users in Russia has grown by a factor of 20 (from 1.5 million in 1999 to 30 million in 2008). Russia has placed its chips on economic modernization, a feature of which is the growth of Internet infrastructure.

This economic modernization effect is evident in the new study. Russia performs relatively better in the "Obstacles to Access" section (which examines legal and ownership control over Internet service providers, or ISPs), and infrastructural and economic barriers to access) than, for instance, in the section on "Violations of Users' Rights" (which focuses on issues including surveillance, privacy, and violence against bloggers).

Like Russia, Egypt is pursuing an economic modernization course that includes promoting the development of the Internet. In the Egyptian case, there is an even sharper disparity between the "Obstacles to Access" and "Violations of Users' Rights" sections, due to the Egyptian government's increasing zeal in harassing and imprisoning bloggers. Moreover, libel and vaguely crafted emergency laws that have been used to silence traditional journalists are now being applied to bloggers.

The authorities in Moscow and Cairo are apparently seeking to square a circle by building digital infrastructure while hoping to sidestep the emergence of a more organized public voice online. Regime fears of such an independent voice could explain the serious warning signs that the relative openness Russians have enjoyed on the Internet may prove ephemeral.

The Russia report points out that Internet freedom has "corroded significantly in recent years" as Internet activists and bloggers have been beaten, killed, and targeted in criminal cases. If the Kremlin's approach to traditional media is a barometer, far more determined efforts to manage and manipulate digital media may be in the offing.

The authorities in Iran (as well as China) have already demonstrated the intention and capacity to subvert Internet freedom. Countries such as Russia are watching the more "mature" systems and techniques of digital repression with keen interest. The relative openness of these countries should not be taken for granted.

The findings from this analysis therefore suggest sweeping generalizations about the trajectory of Internet freedom are inadvisable. While an increasing number of users are drawn to the Internet and other digital technologies to find information, conduct business, and share ideas, increasingly sophisticated and determined governments have shown a strong appetite for limiting unfettered access and use of this powerful tool for free expression.

Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Findings from "Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media" will be released publicly on April 1 and can be found at: www.freedomhouse.org. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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