Report Names Top 10 Enemies of Internet Freedom

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-03-13

Report Names Top 10 Enemies of Internet Freedom

Round up the usual suspects.

Reporters Without Borders March 12 issued its "Enemies of the Internet" list which examines Internet censorship and other threats to online free expression in 22 countries. We're not talking network management issues here but, rather, the imprisonment of cyber dissidents, online news and information censorship and government-sponsored efforts to scramble or jam online content.

It's not a pretty picture. Twelve of the countries called out by Reporters Without Borders -- Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam -- have all "transformed their Internet into an Intranet in order to prevent their population from accessing 'undesirable' online information," according to the report.

Another 10 countries, including Australia and South Korea, have been been placed on the free press organization's watch list. Australia made the list for a draft law requiring service providers to provide two connections per household: one for adults and the other for children. Both connections would be subject to strict and private filtering. In addition, since 2001, Australian law has allowed an independent agency to intercept all suspect e-mails and to carry out independent investigations, including in the absence of any prior judicial authorization.

South Korea, one of the world's most-connected countries, made the Reporters Without Borders watch list for the January arrest of a blogger for having affected "financial exchanges in the markets" as well as the "credibility of the nation" because of articles he posted on one of the country's largest discussion forums. He is still being held in detention.

But those transgressions pale in comparison to how countries such as China, Vietnam and Syria deal with dissent coming from the Internet.

"All these countries distinguish themselves not only by their ability to censor online news and information but also by their virtually systematic persecution of troublesome Internet users," the report states. "Not only is the Internet more and more controlled, but new forms of censorship are emerging based on the manipulation of information."

Globally, a total of 70 cyber dissidents are currently in jail because of what they posted online. China is the world's biggest prison for cyber dissidents, followed by Vietnam and Iran.

A look at some of the world's worse Internet enemies.

Social Dangerousness


10. Cuba: Suppresing the Tendency to Social Dangerousness

First, the good news: since Raul Castro took power it is no longer an offense to own a laptop computer or a mobile telephone. Now, the bad news: very few can afford to own a laptop computer or a mobile telephone. For those who can afford it, Cuban Internet users face up to 20 years in prison if they post an article considered to be "counter-revolutionary" on a foreign-hosted Web site, and five years if they connect illegally to the international network. In one such case, in 2007, journalist Oscar Sanchez Madan, correspondent for Cubanet in Matanzas province, was sentenced to four years in prison "for tendency to social dangerousness."

9. Uzbekistan: Freedom to Inform the Public Has Been Cancelled

Islam Karimov, who was re-elected head of state in 2007, exercises very tight control over the Internet. Web sites do not have to register with the authorities, but everything is centralized and the government blocks access to most independent sites that criticize its policies. State network, UzPak, has been the only one in the country since 2005 and all access providers have to connect via this network. The law on media freedom, adopted in 2003, imposes a series of restrictions on the circulation of news online. The law states the "freedom to inform the public can be limited in the name of the protection...of the community's moral values, national security and the country's spiritual, cultural and scientific potential." The vague formulation of these principles leaves wide scope for interpretation and for extensive and abusive censorship.

8. Egypt: Your Papers, Please

Since the beginning of 2007, the government has stepped up its surveillance of the Web in the name of the fight against terrorism. Officials monitor information exchanged online and cybercafes have to obtain a license from the telecommunications ministry under threat of closure. Some cybercafe owners have said that they had been ordered to note and file all their customers' identity card numbers. Large numbers of people use these cybercafes that are under surveillance because the charges are so much lower than that of individual subscriptions.

To connect to the wireless network, a customer has to provide a mobile phone number and some personal data such as identity card numbers, address and so on, which gives rise to concerns about freedom of speech.

7. Iran: Death to Bloggers

Iran leads the way in the Middle East in repression of the Internet. According to the Tehran prosecutor general's adviser, the authorities blocked five million Web sites in 2008. Since 2003, the government has a commission dedicated to establishing a blacklist of Web sites seen as illegal, including YouTube, Facebook and Orkut. A draft law from 2008 -- soon to be approved -- doles out the death penalty for the "creation of blogs and Web sites promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy."

6. Saudi Arabia: Focusing on Islamic Immorality

Online exchanges are considered to be a factor in immorality. Posting a comment on a Web site deemed "immoral" by the authorities can lead to arrest. Security services and courts base judgments on vague and extremely broad notions of criminal law, which is easy to do when you have no written criminal code. Because of this, Web sites that promote exchanges between bloggers, such as virtual social networking sites such as MySpace and Tagged, are inaccessible in the kingdom. Certain sites allowing users to get around online censorship are also blocked, as is the Arabic version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The government also bans any sites that have anything to do with sexuality in order to "protect citizens from content that is offensive or violates the principles of the Islamic religion and social norms."

Report Names Top 10 Enemies of Internet Freedom

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5. North Korea: Censored Searches and Government Approved News Sites

The North Korean Internet operates like an Intranet that provides e-mail, a censored search engine, a browser and a few news sites carefully chosen by the government. The only available Web pages are approved by the authorities and come from the data banks of the Democratic People's Republic's three largest libraries. To get on the network, cyber cafe owners must obtain permission from the official Korean Computer Center which controls all online information. And then there's this from the Reporters Without Borders report: The regime launched its first mobile phone service in November 2002 but soon banned citizens from using it, confining this privilege to the military elite.

4. Burma: 15 Years in Prison for Importing Modems

Currently, only 0.1 percent of Burmese connect to the Internet inside the country. Government authorization is required to get an Internet connection at home and service providers charge prohibitive prices for membership. Burma's laws relating to electronic communications and the dissemination of news online are among the most dissuasive in the world with Internet users subject to very harsh prison sentences for criticizing the government. The law bans the import, possession and use of a modem without official permission, under threat of a 15-year prison sentence for "damaging state security, national unity, culture, the national economy and law and order." A total of 14 journalists and two bloggers are currently in prison in Burma.

3. Syria: There Is No Need for Proof

After China and Vietnam, the Syrian Arab Republic is one of the world's most repressive countries towards Internet users. Surveillance and censorship are commonplace on the Syrian Web. The Syrian Computer Society, the country's leading access provider, can intercept e-mails to monitor dissidents and the government declared in 2007 that Web site owners should keep personal details of authors of articles and comments. The government sent a notice to the same Web site owners telling them to make public the names of authors and commentators contributing to their sites, under threat of closure of their sites. The government added, "There is no need for proof to know that some articles and comments are false and that some expressions conflict with freedom of speech. Those who publicize them are guilty of defamation or violating public morals." Skype, Facebook, Amazon and YouTube are all banned in Syria.

2. Vietnam: Suppressing All Online Activities That Harm National Interests

Since 2002, Vietnam has equipped itself with a cyber police force that filters "subversive" content and keeps cyber cafes under surveillance. The government, a shareholder in all access providers, follows the Vietnam law to the letter, which dictates, "The state must suppress all activities in the fields of culture and information that harm national interests, destroy the personality, moral values and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people." It is now illegal for a blogger to post articles under another identity, and blogs can only carry strictly personal information while being banned from putting out "press articles, literary works or other publications banned by the press law." As Vietnam Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Do Quy Doan said, "Bloggers are supervised to prevent them from entering into illegality or putting out false information: criticizing the fatherland, the work of constructing the country, denigrating and damaging the honor and human dignity of an individual, and organization, dividing the unity of the nation."

1. China: Leading the World in Repression of the Internet

According to Reporters Without Borders, the Chinese government has the "sorry distinction of leading the world in repression of the Internet." One of the world's most blatant censors, nearly 40,000 employees of the state and the party monitor files circulating on the Internet. The government filters news through the use of key words. These banned words can sometimes be replaced by asterisks and controlled by moderators before they are posted online. The largest blog platform used in the country is monitored by the information ministry with all the blogs on the platform easily controlled by the government if the site content is determined to be contrary to the Communist Party's principles. In 2008, nearly 3,000 news Web sites were made inaccessible within the country. Currently, 49 cyber dissidents and bloggers are behind bars, most of them for "revealing state secrets abroad."


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