On March 12, 2010, Reporters Without Borders celebrated World Day Against Cyber Censorship. The goal of the event was to rally everyone in support of a single Internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all. It is also meant to draw attention to the fact that, by creating new spaces for exchanging ideas and information, the Internet is a force for freedom. However, more and more governments have realized this and are reacting by trying to control the Internet.
Reporters Without Borders issued its latest list of Enemies of the Internet. This list points the finger at countries such as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Tunisia that restrict online access and harass their netizens. A list of countries that have been placed “under surveillance” for displaying a disturbing attitude toward the Internet was also released. We can of course easily figure out that China and Iran will once again have one of the worse scores in terms of Internet freedom.
What Does Internet Enemy Mean?
Two main criterias have been selected to define a country as such. First, we count the number of netizens arrested, harassed or threatened in the past year. As of now, more than 100 of them are in jail because of their online activities. The biggest prison for cyber-dissidents by far is China, with 72 of them behind bars, mostly charged with “divulging state secrets abroad.” The Chinese authorities have quickly forgotten that the Internet is supposed to have no geographical borders.
Then, RSF looks at the way that governments monitor the Internet and limit access. For example, Iran has been censoring millions of web pages and limiting the connection speed to make the information less accessible, especially when it comes to the protest movement after elections last year.
And this year, Reporters Without Borders also chose to award the first “Netizen Prize,” with support from Google. The prize was awarded to the Iranian women’s rights activists of the Change for Equality website, which has made a notable contribution to the defense of online freedom of expression. This is also a way to show that Internet firms are aware of the role they play abroad, especially in countries where the Internet access is restricted.
Google raised awareness of the issue when it announced that it would not censor its search engine results on Google.cn. But this decision also showed that Internet firms doing business in such repressive countries need protection from their own government. Another U.S. company, GoDaddy, announced during a U.S. Congressional hearing that it will stop selling websites with Chinese domain names (those ending in the .cn suffix) because of the controls being demanded by Chinese authorities.
What about the U.S.?
Besides the involvement of Internet firms in repressive countries that help local governments censor online information or restrict the access to it, the U.S. government is not reproach-free when it comes to online free speech.
First, the whole process of adopting a federal shield law to protect reporters’ sources has slowed down because of a “blogger issue.” The House version of the bill, adopted in April 2009, excludes many bloggers from its protection, limiting the shield to those who gather or report news “for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain.” The Senate version has oscillated, with amateurs getting cut in September 2009 and added back in November in a version that looks to the function of disseminating news to the public rather than pay status. And when the bill passed out of the Senate judiciary committee in December, there was an abortive attempt to take non-professionals out again, but it failed.
The U.S. also has had trouble protecting Net neutrality. It is a principle that advocates no online restrictions on content, sites or platforms; on the kinds of equipment that may be attached; on the modes of communication allowed; as well as communication that is not unreasonably degraded by other traffic. Although President Obama took a very clear stance on Net neutrality on February 1, saying that he was a “big believer in Net neutrality,” the Obama administration and its allies at the Federal Communications Commission are retreating from a militant version of Net neutrality regulations. This Net neutrality issue, if not adopted, will directly affect the way the information is selected on the web and therefore accessible to the reader.
When it comes to Internet freedom, restricted online access is not necessarily linked to the most repressive regimes. Preserving online free speech and access to online information should be a top priority for the American government, as a pioneer of the Internet and its regulation.
United Arab Emirates
Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.