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April 1, 2010

Authoritarianism vs. the Internet

The race between freedom and repression


In the heady days following the disputed June 12, 2009, presidential election in Iran, images of protests against election fraud were captured on mobile phone cameras and sent via the internet by ordinary citizens to the outside world. While reporters from major international media were forced to leave the country or were holed up in their hotel rooms, short messages sent by Twitter and videos posted on YouTube filled the gap in information. Thus, at a time when the Iranian government was trying to hide the protests from television and newspaper reporters, the internet provided a window for audiences outside the country to see what was going on inside and gave Iranians a way to tell the world at large what was happening to them.

The internet in Iran is, however, subject to harsh controls, just as other walks of life are. Government restrictions on bandwidth make uploads of photos and videos very slow. Transmissions of text messages on mobile phones were blocked for three weeks following the June 12th presidential election, and government disruption of social networking sites such as Facebook further impeded the ability of Iranians to share information and to organize protests. Moreover, the government has conducted surveillance on internet communications, and that surveillance may have contributed to the arrests of dissidents.

Will the internet bring freedom to oppressed people or can it be controlled so that it cannot threaten repressive regimes?

In the months following Iran’s presidential election, digital media helped to keep the anti-government “Green Movement” alive. Protests were announced and organized largely via digital media, and the movement’s leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have relied heavily on the internet to communicate to Iranians. The regime, however, intensified its crackdown on online dissent. Green Movement websites were hacked. Services to circumvent online censorship, such as UltraSurf, were blocked. The Revolutionary Guard purchased a majority stake in the state telecommunications company to gain control over Iran’s telecommunications network. A special unit in the prosecutor’s office was created to investigate and prosecute internet crimes, with a focus on the regime’s critics. In addition, state security has monitored the anti-regime web posts of Iranians living abroad and harassed their family members in Iran.

The role of the internet in Iran following the June 2009 presidential election raises a fundamental question: Will the internet bring freedom to oppressed people or can it be controlled so that it cannot threaten the hold on power of repressive regimes? The internet has provided greater space for free expression in countries where traditional broadcast and print media are restricted. It has increased opportunities to enrich public discourse, expose abuses of power, and facilitate citizen activism. The open nature of the internet challenges the ability of repressive regimes to thwart expressions of dissent and political opposition.

Authoritarian rulers understand the power of the internet and are actively curtailing its impact. A few countries — Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and Turkmenistan — restrict internet access to a very small segment of the population. They have few public internet access points, and the cost of internet service is prohibitive for the vast majority of citizens.

Other countries, such as China, Iran, and Tunisia, actively promote internet use as a way to stimulate innovation and economic growth, but they place wide-ranging controls over digital media to prevent them from being used for political opposition. They maintain extensive, multilayered systems of censorship and surveillance to stifle online dissent. These systems place severe limits on politically sensitive content that citizens can access, post on the internet, and transmit via mobile phones. Surveillance of internet and mobile phone communications is pervasive, and citizens who criticize the government online are subject to harassment, imprisonment, and torture.

In less restrictive settings, for instance in Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia, the internet has emerged as a haven of relatively free speech in otherwise restrictive media environments. The space for free speech, however, is slowly closing, as governments devise subtle methods to manipulate online discussion and apply deliberately vague security laws to intimidate and arrest their critics. This intimidation leads to self-censorship among online journalists and commentators.

The internet will only be a force for freedom if the United States government adopts a clear and rigorous policy to make it so. The United States should prevent the use of U.S. technology by repressive regimes to censor internet content or to monitor online activities. It should also engage with European and other democratic allies to introduce common standards to stop the sale of technology that repressive regimes can employ to commit abuses against the rights of internet users. Controls of technology exports, however, must be combined with affirmative measures to bolster internet freedom. The United States should invest more heavily in innovative technologies to circumvent internet censorship and surveillance, challenge restrictions on the internet through vigorous diplomacy, and extend greater support to digital activists in repressive environments so that internet users can more effectively assert their rights for freedom of expression online.

Web 2.0

The internet has grown dramatically in recent years. The number of users worldwide increased from 390 million in 2000 to over 1.5 billion in 2008, according to the International Telecommunications Union. In some countries, such as China and Egypt, the number has more than doubled from 2006 to 2008. There are now more than 338 million internet users in China. Over 100 million of them access the web on their mobile phones.

Around the same time, the second generation of web design, known as “Web 2.0,” gained prominence. Web 2.0 consists of a wide range of applications that facilitate the production and dissemination of information by average users, the creation of social networks, and online collaboration. These applications include: social networking services, such as Facebook and Twitter; sites for sharing photos or videos (YouTube is just the best known among many such sites); podcasts, which are digital audio or video files formatted for easy download; web feeds, such as Really Simple Syndication ( rss), designed to aggregate frequent updates of content from various internet sources; wiki sites, which facilitate collaboration on documents; and web logs, or blogs, usually created by individuals, with regular entries of text, graphics, video, file attachments, links to various websites, or some combination thereof. The use of Web 2.0 applications is now pervasive. Among the 300 million internet users in China, for example, there are reportedly 50 million bloggers who produce a total of more than 100 million blogs.

Among the 300 million internet users in China, for example, there are reportedly 50 million bloggers and over 100 million blogs.

The effects of Web 2.0 are profound. In contrast to traditional media, which transmits information vertically from media outlets to target audiences, Web 2.0 applications are designed to spread information horizontally. They allow average users to share information easily — for instance, to forward an online article to their friends with a click of a button, to send their entire social network a link to photos they have posted online, or to upload a video to a website where anyone can view it. Moreover, Web 2.0 applications facilitated the creation and expansion of the blogosphere. They have turned tens of millions of ordinary citizens around the world into publishers and distributors of content. These citizens, on their own initiative, write online journals, produce videos, report what is happening around them, investigate sensitive issues ignored by traditional media, and provide commentary on a vast array of political, social, and other issues. In restricted media environments, bloggers are often at the forefront of efforts to push the bounds of free expression.

As a result, the internet usually provides greater space for free expression than traditional media. A recent survey by Freedom House rated internet freedom in 15 countries, which span four continents and cover a range of experiences from free to highly repressive.1  All of the countries surveyed, with a single exception, received a higher rating for internet freedom than for overall media freedom, as measured on the same scale by Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press” survey. The difference in ratings for internet freedom and traditional media freedom was most pronounced among countries ranked “partly free.”

Web 2.0 applications promote not only independent expression but also freedom of association. They facilitate discussions and interactions among individuals, regardless of physical location. They build communities online of citizens with shared interests and make possible the rapid spread of information, such as news updates or calls to action, among existing networks and beyond. Digital media thus are used extensively for civic activism. In Egypt, for example, a Facebook group set up to organize protests against rising food prices on April 6, 2008, attracted more than 64,000 members in just a few weeks. Malaysia’s opposition political parties conducted a large part of their campaign for the March 2008 general elections through digital media, which contributed to the significant gains they made. They used blogs, YouTube, and sms (short message services on mobile phones) to disseminate their campaign messages and to mobilize support.

In China, a protest by 20,000people against the construction of a chemical factory in Xiamen in 2007 was organized through mobile phone text messages. The following year, citizens spread news and vented their anger on internet bulletin board systems about the tainted baby formula scandal and about the shoddy school construction that was believed to have contributed to the high death rate among children in the Sichuan earthquake. In addition, the pro-democracy manifesto “Charter 08” was posted and circulated online, where it garnered more than7,000 signatories, even though it was censored.

Repression 2.0

The horizontal nature of the internet, whereby ordinary users can easily generate and disseminate content, empowers citizens in ways that traditional media cannot. It makes the flow of information far more difficult to control. At the same time, however, controls on digital media are more intrusive and directly affect much larger numbers of people than restrictions on traditional media. Internet censorship, for example, infringes on the rights of a great many citizens as content producers, not only as consumers, and online surveillance allows authorities to monitor personal communications as well as to track what citizens read. Through surveillance on the internet, state security services can infiltrate online networks, monitor discussions about planned civic actions, and identify members of opposition groups. Facebook, the most widely used social networking service, allows users to create private groups but does not offer secure login. State security services could hack the Facebook page of a known activist and in the process identify that activist’s entire network of friends and contacts.

Control over the internet has grown far more sophisticated in recent years. It is not simply a matter of preventing citizens in repressive environments, such as China, from reading the websites of Amnesty International or the New York Times. It is increasingly focused on impeding the spread of domestically generated content that authoritarian regimes find objectionable, such as news about government incompetence or online discussions about abuses of power, and obstructing the organization of political opposition. Internet censorship and surveillance are used first and foremost by authoritarian regimes to silence their domestic critics and to prevent the emergence of political alternatives.

Several countries have developed extensive, multilayered systems of internet censorship and surveillance. These systems use a variety of methods, often in combination, to curtail internet freedom:

  • Access to Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and YouTube is blocked permanently or temporarily. These blocks often are imposed around particular events, as the Chinese government did during the 2008 unrest in Tibet and following the riots in Xinjiang in 2009. Burma cut off all access to the global internet for several days in 2007 after the violent crackdown on peaceful protests in the “Saffron Revolution.” Iran denies access to broadband to home and internet café users. Connection speeds are restricted to 128 kilobits per second to limit the ability of most internet users to access, download, or share audio and video files.

  • Technical filtering prevents access to specific content posted online or to broad swaths of information at the level of internet service provider (isp). It can target keywords, particular web addresses, or entire domain names. At least 25 countries, according to the Open Net Initiative, conduct technical filtering of the internet.

  • Human censors monitor and manually remove blog posts. They also shut down discussion forums that address forbidden subjects, such as human rights violations, criticism of political figures, or official corruption. Authorities in Russia and elsewhere resort to behind-the-scenes phone calls to pressure bloggers or website hosts to remove certain content.

  • Rather than rely entirely on direct intervention by government agencies, repressive regimes increasingly “outsource” censorship and surveillance to private companies — to internet service providers, blog-hosting companies, cybercafés, and mobile phone operators. Companies risk fines or loss of their business license if they fail to comply with requirements to filter political content, monitor internet activity, or collect data on internet users. Users are required to register with an isp when they purchase internet access at home or at work, so that they cannot operate online anonymously. Customers at cybercafés have to present identification, and cybercafés install software to monitor and filter customers’ web browsing. In Vietnam, cybercafé owners are required to keep a record for 30 days of all the websites their customers visit. Belarus requires cybercafé owners to register each user’s browsing history and to denounce to the police any user who goes to sensitive sites.

  • Repressive regimes resort to the clandestine use of paid pro-government commentators or state-funded websites or blogs to influence online discussions. The Chinese government employs an estimated 250,000 or more “50 Cent Party” commentators, who reportedly receive 50 cents for each pro-government post, while Russia has seen a proliferation of Kremlin-affiliated “web brigades.”

  • Email can be intercepted to monitor dissidents. China, Tunisia, and Iran conduct deep packet inspection, which enables state security to intercept email messages, deconstruct them, pick out keywords, remove or alter the content of these messages, and reconstruct them within milliseconds.

  • Authoritarian governments use general press laws against insult, blasphemy, leaking state secrets, etc. to punish online dissidents. Cuba prosecutes online journalists under generic charges such as presenting a “pre-criminal social danger.” China has issued more than 80 decrees that specifically address internet content and related issues. Vietnam introduced regulations in January 2009 to prohibit blogs from disseminating content that criticizes the government.

  • China imposes harsh prison sentences for online violations, typically between three and ten years. Numerous prosecutions have also occurred in Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Malaysia, where laws against insulting the head of state or Islam are most frequently invoked, while Russia relies on deliberately vague laws against extremism. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were more online journalists than traditional journalists behind bars for the first time in 2008, as a result of either legal prosecution or extralegal detention.

  • Intimidation of bloggers and online journalists has reached significant proportions in several countries, where multiple individuals were subjected to 24-hour surveillance, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and even torture. Egypt permits a relatively open internet environment but targets a few prominent individuals, such as blogger Kareem Amer and youth movement leader Ahmed Maher, to make an example of them and to create a chilling effect on their peers.

  • Blogs and websites are hacked or subjected to denial-of-service attacks, which disrupt or shut down the sites. On the first anniversary of Burma’s Saffron Revolution, for example, independent news websites hosted in Thailand, such as the Irrawaddy and the New Era, became targets of cyber attacks.

The full panoply of repressive methods is used to control the internet in the most restricted internet environments, for instance in China, Iran, and Tunisia. They place targeted restrictions on significant technologies, conduct pervasive technical filtering, use human censors to shut down prohibited online discussions, outsource censorship and surveillance to private companies, monitor the internet activity of dissidents, and subject bloggers and cyber activists to harassment and prosecution. In brief, they have developed sophisticated, multilayered systems to control the free flow of information on the internet.

Other countries, such as Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia, allow substantial freedom online but seem headed toward greater control over the internet. They encourage expanded access to the internet and permit broad space for free expression online despite their heavy restrictions on traditional media. However, they exert state influence over internet content, control the ability of citizens to mobilize online, monitor internet activity quite extensively, and impose harsh penalties on their online critics. These countries, which Freedom House ranks “partly free” on internet freedom, have made some moves toward greater restrictions. Russia and Egypt, for example, have considered draft legislation to increase regulation of the internet. Kazakhstan introduced a law in July 2009 to make all forms of internet content — websites, blogs, chat rooms, etc. — subject to the same restrictions that are in place for traditional media, such as criminal libel.

Collaboration by Western companies

Technology from european and U.S. companies contributes to the efforts by repressive regimes to restrict freedom of digital media. In 2008, a joint venture of the Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia and the German electronics and electrical engineering company Siemens delivered a monitoring center to Iran Telecom, Iran’s state-owned telephone company. This center allows authorities to tap mobile phones and monitor electronic data transmissions. Human rights advocates and intelligence experts believe that this center’s electronic surveillance system has enhanced the capacity of Iranian authorities to monitor private communications and is used to target dissidents.

In a separate case, reported in May 2009, a city library in Mississauga, Canada, was found to use web-filtering technology similar to that used in China. This technology, sold by the California-based company Websense, blocked websites that addressed topics the Chinese government considers sensitive, such as the controversies surrounding the 2008 Olympics and repression of Christians in China. Since the library in Mississauga, Canada, lacked the manpower to review all of the blocked websites, particularly the websites in Mandarin, it relied on the software company to decide which websites to block.

Websense’s internet filtering software is used by thousands of schools and universities worldwide. The China-specific filtering settings apparently were the default settings in the version of the software sent to the Mississauga library. The sale of this software by Websense suggests that Chinese standards for filtering are making their way into other countries, even without the knowledge or consent of the software purchasers. Moreover, according to the OpenNet Initiative, this software is used by the government of Yemen to filter internet content, and the majority of isps in the Middle East and North Africa rely on commercial filtering software, primarily on software produced by Websense and by the U.S.-based company Secure Computing, which is now part of McAfee.

Citizens fight back

Despite government censorshipand surveillance, citizens in internet-restricted countries are finding inventive ways to create and spread information. They are, for example, gaining access to censored content through circumvention software. They share files through peer-to-peer (p2p) networks or overseas file transfer protocol (ftp) sites. Citizens avoid government blocks on their blog posts by deliberately misspelling keywords that trigger filters or, since filters search for text, by posting their words as an image file. They also resort to allegory to criticize government repression. In China, for example, citizens have widely discussed and circulated online cartoons and videos of the mythical grass-mud horse and its struggle against the evil river crab, which symbolized internet censorship.

Activists in China also used the internet to organize resistance to the planned introduction of the Green Dam censorship software. The Chinese government was about to require pre-installation of Green Dam on all personal computers sold in the country effective July 1, 2009. Ostensibly intended to block “unhealthy and vulgar” material, Green Dam in fact would have brought censorship into people’s homes. It filters politically sensitive content, such as information regarding the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, and has the capacity to suddenly close applications like Microsoft Word when certain blacklisted terms are detected. It also allows authorities to easily infiltrate a computer to monitor the user’s internet activity and to steal personal data. Independent experts in China tested the Green Dam software, alerted their counterparts abroad, and spread the word online about Green Dam’s harmful effects. Ordinary Chinese citizens voiced strong objections to the software and used social networking tools, such as online petitions, to organize protests against Green Dam via the internet. They also circulated a cartoon that mocked Green Dam. In this cartoon, a hand comes out of a computer screen of a computer user at home and stiff-arms him in the face. The combination of domestic criticism and foreign pressure persuaded the Chinese government to delay the introduction of Green Dam.

Policy to expand freedom

Citizens in repressive environments, such as China and Iran, have shown their resolve to get around censorship online and to challenge government control of the internet. They cannot, however, overcome this censorship and control on their own. Repressive regimes are determined to prevent the internet from weakening their grip on power, and they have become adept at keeping free expression on the internet in check and thwarting the mobilization of political opposition online. The internet thus will only be effective in advancing freedom in repressive environments if the United States adopts a clear policy to support internet freedom and persuades its democratic allies to join in pursuing this policy.

Because repressive regimes use sophisticated, multilayered systems to control the internet, the U.S. response must be multifaceted. There is no silver bullet. No single technology, by itself, can overcome internet censorship. Instead, what is needed is a combination of policy initiatives to advance free expression online. These initiatives should stop the export of U.S. and European technology used to control the internet, promote international acceptance of internet freedom and respect for the rights of internet users, increase investment in technological innovation to mitigate online censorship and surveillance, and support citizens in oppressed societies who are working to expand the space for free expression on the internet.

U.S. policy to protect internet freedom should, at a minimum, ensure that U.S. companies will no longer be complicit in violating the rights of internet users. The Global Online Freedom Act (gofa), introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, would provide significant protection against such complicity by U.S. companies, but it is far from sufficient. It would discourage U.S. companies from involvement in internet censorship by requiring them to disclose the methods of filtering they use and the content they block at the request of repressive regimes. It would also oblige U.S. companies to host personal data on servers outside of internet-restricted countries and give the attorney general the authority to deny requests for personal data that could be used to prosecute dissidents. gofa thus would likely achieve its aim to prevent a repetition of cases like that of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who in 2005 was sentenced to ten years in prison on the basis of personal data provided to the Chinese government by Yahoo.

The Global Online Freedom Act would not, however, stop the sale of technology to repressive regimes for censorship and surveillance of digital media. Controls on the export of such technology are needed. This technology is generally — but not always — used appropriately in the United States, Europe, and other democratic countries, where legal safeguards are in place. It facilitates parental control of web browsing to block out child pornography and other noxious content, and allows law enforcement agencies, under judicial supervision, to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists and criminals. Repressive regimes, however, often if not invariably use internet censorship and surveillance technology to curtail peaceful criticism of the government and legitimate discussion of sensitive issues. As the case of Green Dam shows, authoritarian governments use filtering software to limit political expression rather than to empower parents and schools to make their own choices on what children may or may not view online. Similarly, surveillance technology is used to monitor internet users. This monitoring takes place in the absence of independent judicial oversight.

U.S. diplomacy should also promote international acceptance of internet freedom and protection for internet users.

The introduction of U.S. export controls on internet censorship and surveillance technology would set the example for other democratic countries and encourage them to stop the sale of technology that can be used to commit human rights abuses against internet users. It would lead the way in raising international standards for business to protect internet freedom, much as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which prohibits the payment of bribes to foreign officials, led to the eventual adoption of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) Anti-Bribery Convention.

As the example of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the oecd Anti-Bribery Convention indicate, U.S. export controls on internet censorship and surveillance technology would put U.S. companies at a disadvantage and have limited effect unless companies in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere were obliged to follow suit. The United States should therefore launch a diplomatic initiative to develop common standards among oecd countries for export controls on internet censorship and surveillance technology. Multilateral export controls are the most effective way to keep improvements in this technology out of the hands of authoritarian rulers.

U.S. diplomacy should also promote international acceptance of internet freedom and protection for the rights of internet users. It should build broad coalitions among democratic governments to defend the open nature of the global internet, for instance at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, and to challenge practices of repressive regimes that infringe on internet freedom.

Democratic governments could further enhance global internet freedom if they coordinate their aid as well. Just as multiple donors have collaborated to address major international challenges, such as the fight against hiv/aids, a multilateral fund should be created to support internet freedom globally. This fund would encourage individual democratic governments to provide larger amounts of resources for the cause of global internet freedom and would bolster their shared commitment to this cause.

Freedom of expression online is better promoted through a variety of technologies to circumvent internet censorship.

A Global Internet Freedom Fund is needed to support both technological innovation and indigenous efforts in internet-restricted countries to expand the space for free expression online. There currently exists a range of technologies to circumvent censorship and to protect the privacy of internet users. Some of these technologies, such as secure login on Google mail, were developed commercially. Most, however, emerged as nonprofit ventures, including the web proxy software Psiphon created by Toronto University’s Citizen Lab, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium’s anti-censorship software UltraSurf and FreeGate, and tor (The Onion Router) system for anonymous online communication promoted in the public domain by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Such nonprofit ventures require public support and charitable contributions. Public support is essential to provide anti-censorship and privacy protection software free of charge and thus to make this software accessible to most internet users in China, Iran, and other repressive environments. Only by making this software accessible will it be used on a mass scale and weaken significantly the extensive controls that authoritarian governments impose on the internet.

Freedom of expression online is better promoted through a variety of technologies to circumvent internet censorship and surveillance than through any single technology alone. While some policymakers search for the single best technology to overcome authoritarian government control over the internet — to punch large holes through the Great Firewall of China — they would be better advised to support several different technologies, because repressive regimes can far more easily block access to one anti-censorship tool than to many. Moreover, competition among developers of censorship and surveillance circumvention software, like competition in any market, spurs technological innovation and improved service.

Anti-censorship and privacy protection technologies, however, are at best a partial solution. They may break through the gateways that block access from restricted environments to the global internet, and perhaps they may bring down the Great Firewall of China, but they still will have limited effect on all of the other controls over the internet — on the human censors, the closure of domestic websites, the disruption of online discussions, the pressure on cybercafés to monitor internet users, the arrest of bloggers, etc. Technology cannot protect the right of internet users to generate and share their own content freely, and the creation of domestic content is of far greater consequence than access to websites abroad. Internet users in China, for example, expand their access to information when they can read any U.S.-hosted website they want, but they would gain much more influence over their own society if they could create their own website or maintain their own blog free from government interference or could carry on their online discussions without being shut down.

The proposed Global Internet Freedom Fund therefore should support indigenous efforts in internet-restricted countries to expand the space for free expression. This support should expand education, research, and international exchanges on issues of online censorship and privacy in repressive environments. It would thereby bolster the influence of indigenous experts (academics, journalists, lawyers, etc.) who advocate for the rights of internet users. It would help these experts to learn how their counterparts in other countries get around internet controls, to find new ways for challenging internet censorship and surveillance, and to collaborate on international advocacy for internet freedom.

The internet offers the promise of a more open world, where citizens who live under authoritarian rule may find a space to speak their minds, to hold their government to account, and to join fellow citizens in exploring political alternatives. Authoritarian rulers are, however, determined to keep that promise in check. They have grown ever more sophisticated and effective in controlling the internet. As the rights of internet users across the globe are increasingly at risk, concerted action is needed to make the internet a force for freedom worldwide. The promise of the internet can only be realized through U.S. leadership that brings democratic countries together to protect the rights of internet users and to advance freedom of expression online.


Daniel Calingaert is deputy director of programs at Freedom House, which receives funding from the U.S. State Department, Google, and other sources to promote internet freedom.


1 “Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media” is available online at http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=383&report=79.