Long-standing laws in China have led internet companies there to employ hundreds of thousands of people responsible for monitoring and censoring online videos, bulletin-board discussions, blog posts, and microblog messages. Nevertheless, in 2009 and 2010, the Chinese authorities adopted various measures to increase pressure on private websites, obliging them to be more vigilant and prevent content from slipping through the cracks. In Thailand, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Venezuela, new laws or directives promulgated since 2007 have led to an increase in this type of censorship. In Thailand, for instance, online news outlets are legally responsible for comments posted by readers, and at least one editor is facing criminal charges over reader comments that were critical of the monarchy. In Vietnam and Venezuela, some webmasters and bloggers have disabled the comment feature on their sites to avoid potential liability.
In addition, a range of governments have deployed manpower and resources to proactively manipulate online discussion and bolster progovernment views. Thailand has military units assigned to countering online criticism of the monarchy, and Burma has established a blogging committee in each ministry. Elsewhere, those recruited and paid for such tasks may be ordinary citizens, often youth. Thus China has cadres, known as the “50 Cent Party” for their supposed per-comment fees, who are employed to post progovernment remarks on various online forums, and recruiting advertisements for similar commentators have reportedly begun to appear on Russian job sites.
Government-sponsored posts aim not only to defend the leadership and its policies, but also to discredit opposition voices or human rights activists, and to deceive everyday users. During postelection protests in Iran, for example, government supporters posted fake user-generated content to Twitter and YouTube to mislead protesters and journalists.
In a somewhat different manipulation technique, search-engine providers in some countries, most notably China, are required to adjust search results to match government-imposed criteria, for instance by only offering government-affiliated sources on particular topics. In addition to displeasure over a series of cyberattacks, this obligation was at the center of Google’s decision to withdraw from China in early 2010.
OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net COUNTRIES AT RISK After reviewing the findings for the 37 countries covered in this edition of Freedom on the Net, Freedom House has identified five that are at particular risk of suffering setbacks related to internet freedom in 2011 and 2012. A number of other countries showed deterioration over the past two years and may continue to decline, but the internet controls in these states—which include Bahrain, China, and Iran—are already well developed. By contrast, in most of the five countries listed below, the internet remains a relatively unconstrained space for free expression, even if there has been some obstruction of internet freedom to date. These countries also typically feature a repressive environment for traditional media, as well as an internet penetration rate of at least percent, meaning the internet is both vitally important and in significant danger of repression.
Thailand Internet users in Thailand have played a significant role in challenging the political establishment and the role of the monarchy in Thai politics since the military coup of 2006. This has provoked efforts by the government and military to control the free flow of information and commentary online. Although the government has been blocking some internet content since 2003, over the past two years online censorship has increased in both scale and scope, affecting tens of thousands of websites by the end of 2010, including independent news outlets and human rights groups.
Restrictions intensified between April and December 2010, when a state of emergency allowed the authorities to extrajudicially block any website. Dozens of people have been charged under various laws for expressing their views online, particularly those that are critical of the monarchy. As of the end of 2010, many of these cases had yet to be decided. The country’s political turmoil has continued, and parliamentary elections are tentatively scheduled for December 2011, raising the likelihood of additional backsliding on freedom of expression issues. In a worrying sign, a Thai judge in March 2011 sentenced a web developer to 13 years in prison for comments he posted and for refusing to remove the remarks of others.
Russia Given the elimination of independent television channels and the tightening of press restrictions since 2000, the internet has become Russia’s last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and the expression of political opinions. However, even as access conditions have improved, internet freedom has eroded. In the last two years, the country’s first high-profile cases of technical blocking were reported, while tactics for proactively manipulating discussion in the online sphere were refined. Russian bloggers faced increasing intimidation: at least 25 cases of harassment of bloggers by the authorities occurred in 2009 and 2010, including 11 arrests. Greater efforts to increase government influence over the internet are anticipated as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in December 2011 and a presidential election in early 2012. In March 2011, bloggers reportedly uncovered evidence that Russian officials were hiring users to post OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net comments that would shape a “positive image” of the ruling United Russia party and “form a negative attitude” toward the author of a targeted blog.
Venezuela While restrictions on broadcast media outlets have grown in recent years, the internet has remained relatively free, with blogs, Facebook, and Twitter becoming important spaces for the free diffusion of information. Opposition groups have used these platforms to mobilize support, and the authorities have responded with some attempts to restrict online content, though to date they have not engaged in large-scale filtering or blogger arrests. There have been periodic interruptions of access to opposition or independent websites, efforts to intimidate websites into censoring the comments of their users, and several prosecutions for information posted on Twitter. Perhaps the most worrying recent development is the passage in December 2010 of laws that increased state control over telecommunications networks and laid the foundation for website managers and service providers to be required to censor the comments of users. President Hugo Chvez had declared in March 2010 that the internet could not be “a free thing where you do and say whatever you want,” and progovernment lawmakers were spurred to act in December following opposition gains in September parliamentary elections. The country is now preparing for a presidential election in 2012, and the state-run telecommunications firm CANTV has a record of apparently restricting access to websites and blogs at sensitive times, suggesting that there is a strong possibility of increased censorship and harassment of internet users in the coming months.
Zimbabwe Internet access remains limited in Zimbabwe, but the number of mobile-phone users has increased rapidly since early 2009, from less than 10 percent of the population to nearly 50 percent by the end of 2010. While the regime of President Robert Mugabe has committed rampant human rights abuses and exercised strict control over the traditional media, the internet is nominally free from government interference. Nevertheless, there are indications that the government has a strong desire to control new information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly mobile phones. The 2007 Interception of Communications Act allows the authorities to monitor telephone and internet traffic, and requires service providers to intercept communications on the state’s behalf. In addition, some content restrictions and registration requirements related to mobile phones have been imposed in recent years. Parliamentary elections are likely to take place in late 2011, internet access via mobile phones is increasing, and there are a number of influential Zimbabwean news sites based in foreign countries, all of which may tempt Mugabe and his ZANUPF party to increase ICT controls. Given the prevalence of mobile-phone use, this could take the form of censorship of text-messaging or even a “kill switch” action to disable the entire network.
OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Jordan Jordan prides itself on offering broader freedom to use the internet than many other Middle Eastern countries. Nonetheless, internet users are aware that their browsing history, comments, and posted materials may be monitored by the authorities. Until recently, the government’s interest in maintaining this direct access to public opinion seemed to have outweighed its impulses to control content. In August 2010, despite objections from civil society, the government adopted a new law on cybercrimes that could be used to limit free expression on the internet. For example, it prohibits the posting of any previously nonpublic information relevant to foreign affairs, national security, the national economy, or public safety. Many bloggers and web users have expressed concern that the government could exploit the ambiguous definitions for each of these categories and use the law selectively to silence its critics. Currently, outright blocking of websites by the authorities remains rare, but website owners often remove material after receiving informal complaints via telephone from government officials, and several popular news websites have been subjected to hacking attacks after posting sensitive material. In February 2011, Ammonnews.net was hacked and temporarily disabled after its editors refused to comply with security agents’ demands to remove a statement in which Jordanian tribesmen called for democratic and economic reforms.
OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net FREEDOM ON THE NET 2011: GLOBAL SCORES Freedom on the Net aims to measure each country’s level of internet and new media freedom.
Each country receives a numerical score from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the least free), which serves as the basis for an internet freedom status designation of Free (0-30 points), Partly Free (31-60 points), or Not Free (61-100).
Ratings are determined through an examination of three broad categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violation of user rights.
Obstacles to Access: assesses infrastructural and economic barriers to access;
governmental efforts to block specific applications or technologies; and legal, regulatory and ownership control over internet and mobile phone access providers.
Limits on Content: examines filtering and blocking of websites; other forms of censorship and self-censorship; manipulation of content; the diversity of online news media; and usage of digital media for social and political activism.
Violations of User Rights: measures legal protections and restrictions on online activity; surveillance; privacy; and repercussions for online activity, such as legal prosecution, imprisonment, physical attacks, or other forms of harassment.
FREEDOM ON A SUBTOTAL: B SUBTOTAL: C SUBTOTAL:
FREEDOM THE NET OBSTACLES TO LIMITS ON VIOLATIONS OF COUNTRY ON THE NET TOTAL ACCESS CONTENT USER RIGHTS STATUS 0-100 Points 0-25 Points 0-35 Points 0-40 Points Estonia Free 10 2 2 USA Free 13 4 2 Germany Free 16 4 5 Australia Free 18 3 6 UK Free 25 1 8 Italy Free 26 6 8 South Free 26 7 9 Africa CHARTS AND GRAPHS OF KEY FINDINGS FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net FREEDOM ON A SUBTOTAL: B SUBTOTAL: C SUBTOTAL:
FREEDOM THE NET OBSTACLES TO LIMITS ON VIOLATIONS OF COUNTRY ON THE NET TOTAL ACCESS CONTENT USER RIGHTS STATUS 0-100 Points 0-25 Points 0-35 Points 0-40 Points Brazil Free 29 7 7 Kenya Partly Free 32 12 9 Mexico Partly Free 32 12 10 South Partly Free 32 3 12 Korea Georgia Partly Free 35 12 10 Nigeria Partly Free 35 13 10 India Partly Free 36 12 8 Malaysia Partly Free 41 9 11 Jordan Partly Free 42 12 11 Turkey Partly Free 45 12 16 Indonesia Partly Free 46 14 13 Venezuela Partly Free 46 15 13 Azerbaijan Partly Free 48 15 15 Rwanda Partly Free 50 14 19 Russia Partly Free 52 12 17 Egypt Partly Free 54 12 14 Zimbabwe Partly Free 54 16 15 Kazakhstan Partly Free 55 16 22 Pakistan Partly Free 55 16 17 CHARTS AND GRAPHS OF KEY FINDINGS FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net FREEDOM ON A SUBTOTAL: B SUBTOTAL: C SUBTOTAL:
FREEDOM THE NET OBSTACLES TO LIMITS ON VIOLATIONS OF COUNTRY ON THE NET TOTAL ACCESS CONTENT USER RIGHTS STATUS 0-100 Points 0-25 Points 0-35 Points 0-40 Points Thailand Not Free 61 12 23 Bahrain Not Free 62 11 22 Belarus Not Free 69 19 23 Ethiopia Not Free 69 21 26 Saudi Not Free 70 14 27 Arabia Vietnam Not Free 73 16 25 Tunisia Not Free 81 21 28 China Not Free 83 19 28 Cuba Not Free 87 24 30 Burma Not Free 88 23 29 Iran Not Free 89 21 29 CHARTS AND GRAPHS OF KEY FINDINGS FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net FREEDOM ON THE NET 2011: GLOBAL GRAPHS 37-COUNTRY SCORE COMPARISON (0 Best, 100 Worst) * A green-colored bar represents a status of “Free,” a yellow-colored one, the status of “Partly Free,” and a purple-colored one, the status of “Not Free” on the Freedom of the Net Index.
CHARTS AND GRAPHS OF KEY FINDINGS FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net SCORE CHANGES FREEDOM ON THE NET 2009 VS. COUNTRY FOTN FOTN TRAJECTORY COUNTRY FOTN FOTN TRAJECTORY 2009 2009 Brazil 30 Kenya 34 China 79 Malaysia 41 41 No change Cuba 88 87 Russia 49 Egypt 51 54 South 22 Africa Estonia 13 Tunisia 76 Georgia 43 Turkey 42 India 34 United 23 Iran 76 89 Kingdom CHARTS AND GRAPHS OF KEY FINDINGS FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net COUNTRIES AT RISK: INTERNET FREEDOM VS. PRESS FREEDOM Among the 37 countries covered in this study, one notable contingent of states were those where the internet remains a relatively unobstructed domain of free expression when compared to a more repressive or dangerous environment for traditional media. This difference is evident from the comparison between a country’s score on Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2011 assessment and its score on the Freedom of the Press 2010 study.
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