Freedom on the global Internet still a pipe dream

The latest global survey by Reporters without Borders concludes that the Internet increasingly is the target of surveillance and restrictions

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"The Internet represents freedom, but not everywhere."

So begins the annual "Internet Enemies" report by Reporters Without Borders--and that's probably the cheeriest line in the entire 39-page document. It goes down from there.

For the uninitiated, Reporters Without Borders is an anti-censorship watchdog organization. As blogs and news Web sites have grown in popularity, the group's focus has similarly migrated to the Internet. Unfortunately, the report again paints a grim picture of Internet freedoms in parts of the world where it says the authorities regularly chuck bloggers in jail for online posts that displease the regime.

Here's the all-star team:

• Burma: Its Internet users rank among the "most threatened," according to Reporters Without Borders. A 1996 law outlaws the import or use of a modem without first receiving government permission. Violators face 15 years in jail for "damaging state security, national unity, culture, the national economy and law and order."

• China: The Chinese government leads all others on this list as far as repression of the Internet. Each day about 40,000 state employees monitor what gets sent over the transom. All blogs that use China's biggest blogging platform must be hosted inside the country. And the country's information ministry is always watching and filtering out information it doesn't like. "With the world's largest number of Internet users, its censorship mechanisms are among the world's most blatant," the report states. At last count, 49 cyberdissidents and bloggers were jailed--the majority for "revealing state secrets abroad."

• Cuba: You can surf the Internet at a tourist hotel, but it's expensive. What's more, Cuba's Supervision and Control Agency will be watching. There's also a national network, but it limits connections to government Web sites. The penalty for posting "counter-revolutionary" articles on a foreign-hosted Web site is 20 years. You get 5 years in the stir for connecting illegally to the international network.

• Egypt: Citing terrorism concerns, the government monitors what gets sent over the Internet. If you want to connect to a Wi-Fi network, the state requires a cell phone number as well as some other piece of identifying information. The police arrested 100 bloggers last year for "damaging national security." Two remain in jail.

• Iran: Has the worst record for Internet repression in the Middle East, according to Reporters Without Borders. News Web sites critical of the Ahmadinejad government routinely get shut down. Political bloggers risk jail time for publicizing incidents deemed harmful to the regime. Esmail Jafari, who edits the blog Rah Mardom, was sentenced to five months in prison last December for posting information about a demonstration in front of the equivalent of city hall in the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr.

• North Korea: What can I say--it's Kim Jong Il. This is a country that only offered its first mobile phones in 2002--but quickly backtracked, saying only top military commanders could use them. Reporters Without Borders sums it up this way: "North Korea is a model of control of news and information in a country where all forms of communication are at the service of the regime." North Korea has been online since 2000, but "it operates like an Intranet" with a handful of pre-selected news sites that meet government approval.

• Saudi Arabia: The country has a major issue with pornography--along with defamation and "violation of religious values." Of course, there's lots of wiggle room in interpreting what exactly that means. Suffice it to say that the regime has little tolerance for anything deemed counter to the prevailing Wahhabi ideology. "Posting a comment on a Web site deemed "immoral" by the authorities can lead to arrest. This is all the easier since the kingdom does not have a written criminal code."

• Syria: Bashir al-Assad helped introduce Syria to the Internet in 2001. Yet Reporters Without Borders ranks Syria in third place behind China and Vietnam as "one of the world's most repressive countries towards Internet users." Forget about using Google's Blogspot to set up a blog; it's inaccessible. The government has blocked user access to 160 Web sites deemed critical of the regime on what's called the Syrian Web; at last count, five cyberdissidents remained in jail. Skype is censored, and YouTube, Amazon, and Facebook are banned on the Syrian Web.

• Tunisia: Mixed bag. There now exist more than 20 ISPs, and Tunesia ranks as one of the most Web-connected nations in North Africa. Still, the government enforces a strict policy of Internet filtering. The upshot: Lots of self-censorship. Last November, Tunisian bloggers held a one-day protest against blog censorship as 2008 marked a bad year for Internet freedom of expression in the country. By law, ATI, which manages Tunisia's e-mail system, can intercept e-mail that "threatens public order and national security."

• Turkmenistan: Come on, admit it. How many of you even thought Turkmenistan was hooked up to the Internet? But it's there. This is a country that has banned satellite dishes and so the Internet has become the default source of information about what's going on in the outside world. You can get a private connection from a single access provider, Turkmen Telekom. (Wi-Fi arrived last year through a Russian access provider.) Unfortunately, Turkmen Telekom ultimately answers to the country's interior ministry, which blocks sites and snoops on messaging services.

• Uzbekistan: From the counter-intuitive files, until 2006, more people in Uzbekistan had Internet access than had mobile phones. But restrictions on what Uzbeks can read and say on the Internet occasionally lead to sites being banned for no apparent reason. The government acknowledges keeping a secret list of offending Web sites that provide "destructive news" and threaten "security of information."

• Vietnam: With blog use flourishing, the government has established a cyber-police force to keep an eye on "subversive" content. This will be interesting to watch because Vietnam's youthful population can't get enough of this Internet thing. But last month, Vietnam's Minister for Information and Communications offered this thinly disguised warning: "A blog is a personal news page. If a blogger uses it for general news like the press, he is breaking the law and will be punished." Authorities have arrested and sentenced eight people to jail since mid-2006 for because of what they posted online.

The report also makes (dishonorable) mention of nations that are either considering Internet censorship statutes or have been stepping up control over their citizens' use of the Web. These include: Australia, Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Malaysia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. You can read more about this at the Reporters Without Borders Web site.

 

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