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Watchdog: Governments Becoming More Skilled At Suppressing Online Press Freedom

While authorities in Iran overlooked the potential for organizing protests online following the 2009 election, they have learned fast since then, the report's authors say.
As the Internet has increased the free flow of information worldwide, oppressive governments have become adept at using online tools to advance their own agendas.

That is the conclusion of a report titled "The 10 Tools Of Online Oppressors," released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on May 2.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Danny O'Brien, CPJ's Internet advocacy coordinator and the report's author, calls the trend "the darker side" of the Internet. He adds that countries that suppress traditional media also tend to be those seeking to suppress the free flow of information online.

"There's a very strong match between the sort of freedoms the people have on the Internet and their corresponding press freedom," O'Brien says. "Online freedoms tend to trail slightly press freedoms, which means that if press freedoms contract in a country -- it's only a matter of time before Internet freedoms also contract."

Some tactics employed by authoritarian governments are crude and simple, like shutting down all Internet traffic -- as deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak did briefly during the final days of his rule.

Others are more sophisticated, like the use of "denial-of-service attacks" in which an Internet server is flooded with a barrage of communication requests preventing it from functioning properly.

Many websites are banned in Iran.
And as technology develops, O'Brien says, governments are resorting to ever-more stealthy methods. In China, for example, state monitoring agencies are targeting investigative journalists with spyware sent via e-mail.

"They use names and facts that the journalists know about. They pretend to be from someone they know," O'Brien says. "And inside those e-mails are targeted pieces of software that can invade and take over those journalists' computers, spy on what they're doing, and then relay that to third parties."

Iranian Regime Learns Quickly

Countries actively deploying online tools to suppress Internet freedom include China, Myanmar, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. But O'Brien says Iran provides the most flagrant example.

During the contested 2009 presidential election, the Iranian government was widely ridiculed for its lack of skill in using the Internet as protesters deftly used Twitter and Facebook to organize antigovernment demonstrations.

But the authorities in Tehran quickly recovered. "In Iran the government very quickly learned that the Internet was a force for opposition protests and independent media but it could be quickly switched around," O'Brien says. "And now they have a very strong grip on the Iranian Internet."

Iran and China, he says, have invested considerable sums to upgrade their online infrastructure and have hired additional personnel to monitor the Internet.

Tehran also recently began requiring all websites in Iran to be registered with the Ministry of Culture. Thousands of websites are banned in Iran.

The authorities also use pricing to restrict online access, with the fees for high-speed Internet connections beyond the means of the average Iranian.

Stealth Censorship

In Russia, Belarus, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, the authorities have increased their online monitoring activities and have sought to inhibit the distribution of news and information.

Governments in these regions are also using the Internet to spy on journalists and to incapacitate news websites not controlled by the state. They are also monitoring and disrupting blogs, chat rooms, and online forums that have, until recently, been free of such surveillance.

CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator, Nina Ognianova, says the authorities are also using cybercrime legislation against independent media sites. Such methods are reminiscent of the use of defamation suits against traditional journalists. They have also become increasingly deft at blocking websites.

"This kind of more insidious -- not as direct -- censorship has actually proven more effective in muzzling independent voices," Ognianova says. "When we're talking about newer forms of censorship, we're talking about untraceable, intermittent blocking of selected websites. That intermittent blocking is done usually around sensitive political events such as elections."

Governments usually deny involvement when websites are blocked, citing things beyond their control, like hackers or technical glitches. "Because it's not traceable or easily traceable, or easily proven -- it is highly effective, it is bound to be adopted by other regimes worldwide," Ognianova says.

O'Brien says smart phones, which are becoming more widely available, are the next target for authoritarian governments as they seek to suppress online freedom and control citizens' access to information.

"These phones give activists and journalists incredible power: video and upload and reporting from the world's trouble spots. But it also means that everybody in those countries is effectively carrying a tracking device that can monitor where they are and perhaps even spy on them," O'Brien says.

"So I think the real big fight between Internet online press freedom and these Internet oppressors is going to be management to keep control of the mobile-phone world."