Net censorship, propaganda on the rise

SAN FRANCISCO — The freedom represented by the Internet does not extend to all countries, says a new Reporters Without Borders report that faults a dozen nations for engaging in an “almost systematic repression of Internet users.”

The Paris-based international group counted four Asian countries among this dirty dozen: China, Vietnam, North Korea and Burma. Five Islamic nations shared the dubious distinction: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tunisia. Rounding out the list were the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Cuba, where Raul Castro only recently made it legal for his countrymen to buy mobile phones and computers, devices long proscribed by his brother, Fidel.

China dominates the “Internet Enemies” list by every measure. To begin with, its online community is huge, now estimated in excess of 300 million users. About 40,000 state and party officials monitor Internet activity. In 2008, the government made nearly 3,000 news Web sites inaccessible to Chinese users. The report says 49 cyber dissidents and bloggers have been locked up for exercising free speech.

Reporters Without Borders says China has made control a central aspect of its Internet system since 1987. Chinese censors filter Web traffic for thousands of politically sensitive words. Chinese activists try to evade surveillance by creating code words, which authorities eventually discover and add to their lists. “There are today around 400-500 banned key words relating the the events of 4 June 1989,” the report say, in reference to what Westerners know as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The report singled out Iran, with 23 million Internet users, as the most repressive of the Middle Eastern countries on the list. It says Iranian authorities blocked 5 million websites and imprisoned at least four blogggers in 2008. Not far behind is Egypt with 10 million Internet users. Authorities there currently have two online dissidents in jail in an effort to control protests that have arisen through blogs and social networking sites, like Facebook.

Cultural and religious issues were a tenet of Internet monitoring among the Islamic nations on the list. The report said Saudi Arabian women, denied participation in other aspects of society, have a large presence among the country's 6.2 million Internet users. “That is why sites dealing with the feminine condition are very widely filtered,” the report says.

Several countries on the list, such as North Korea, Burma and the former Soviet republics, are among the world's most isolated nations.

Vietnam, however, is eager to build its economy and Internet use is high. But authorities seem to have been caught unawares by the volume of opposition among the nation's 21 million Internet users and the report details their attempts to control it. In September, Vietnamese officials felt obliged to issue a decree that made it specifically illegal to oppose government policies on the Internet.

“There are almost a million blogs in Vietnam in a population of 85 million,” the report says. “Since August 2006, eight people have been arrested and sentenced because of their online posts.”

The report touches on efforts to prevent technology companies from aiding and abetting this oppression. In 2008, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft joined human rights groups in a Global Network Initiative. As part of the accord, the companies involved pledged to make it harder for countries to get confidential information about people who use their search or blog services, says Reporters Without Borders.

But few tech firms have agreed to even those modest goals and repressive regimes can still easily buy or invent tools to control free expression. The report says authorities are also getting bolder about planting favorable comments as a form of online propaganda. “Not only is the Internet more and more controlled, but new forms of censorship are emerging based on the manipulation of information,” says the report on a pessimistic end note.

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