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Flagged for Removal: Online Censorship on the Rise

Aprille Muscara*

WASHINGTON, May 2 2011 (IPS) - The shutdown was surprisingly swift and almost total. In the midst of a popular revolution – one that was blogged, YouTubed, and Twittered in minute-by-minute cyber blasts – the Egyptian regime tightened its Internet spigot in late January, choking the free flow of information down to a trickle.

After a caustic domestic and international backlash, the North African country’s Internet Service Providers eventually restored connectivity. However, media analysts warn that ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s desperate deployment of information control – a time-tested tactic of repressive regimes – adapted to today’s new technologies of communication is but part of a growing global trend.

Indeed, a “Freedom on the ‘Net” study released by the U.S.-based Freedom House in late April warned that efforts to control and censor the cyber commons – from blocking Web sites to imprisoning bloggers – by a growing number of governments around the world have ramped up in recent years.

“In authoritarian states, such efforts are partly rooted in the existing legal frameworks, which already limit the freedom of the traditional media,” the study states. The usual suspects – China, with the world’s most sophisticated state censorship apparatus, Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, and Tunisia – are among those fingered as guilty.

But “[e]ven in more democratic countries – such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom – Internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance,” the study continues.

On Monday, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a report on the “Top 10 Tools of Online Oppressors” in commemoration of World Press Freedom day on May 3.

“These techniques go well beyond Web censorship,” said Danny O’Brien, CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator and author of the report. “Combined, these digital attacks undermine our universal right to seek information.”

The list includes such good old-fashioned tactics as imprisonment and violence against independent and opposition journalists, to high-tech methods of censorship like Denial of Service cyber-attacks and so- called Internet “kill switches” similar to Egypt’s.

Press freedom in the networked world

With the amplification of citizen voices through the proliferation and penetration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) worldwide – according to Freedom House, more than two billion people have access to the Internet, a number that has doubled since 2006 – the once well-defined journalistic lines between spectator and contributor, source and correspondent are blurring, equally amplifying the threat of online censorship to press freedom.

“[T]he increased user participation facilitated by the new platforms has exposed ordinary people to some of the same punishments faced by well-known bloggers, online journalists, and human rights activists,” the Freedom House study said.

This overwhelming number of active voices contributing to the dissemination of news – some with questionable intents or identities – has also demanded a re-evaluation of the profession of journalism itself, with some arguing that crowd-sourcing can muddle the quality and accuracy of news.

Others, like media analyst and New York University-based journalism professor Jay Rosen, find value in mass participation in the reporting process. “The news system is stronger for it,” he wrote in a recent blog post, arguing that more contributions from friends and followers make for better news.

“We have an influx of material – videos, photos, testimonies and tweets – and we can weave a story on the ground just from people who are breaking this curfew and risking everything they have to tell their story,” North Africa and Middle East editor for Global Voices Amira Hussaini echoed in an interview with IPS during the Egyptian revolution.

“[T]he ability to hear from participants in a people power movement is a massive improvement from how we’ve generally covered public uprising, where we hear primarily from government spokespeople and professional talking heads,” Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, told IPS. “You want biased coverage from elites – there you have it.”

Subsequently, in this new model of participatory journalism, where the inputs of citizens can be as important as those of veteran reporters and traditional agenda-setters, the impact of increased online censorship is thus multiplied, as it can affect the layperson casually tweeting about the day’s events as much as the prolific opposition blogger.

In “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom”, author Evgeny Morozov debunks the predominant narrative and initial techno-euphoria surrounding Iran’s restive summer of 2009 as a revolution purported to have been borne out of Twitter.

“If anything, Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor, a world where technology could be harvested to spread democracy around the globe rather than entrench existing autocracies,” he writes.

Indeed, as the Internet and other ICTs are ostensibly lauded for their potential to democratise the processes of news-making and news- gathering, technology can equally be harnessed for repression, as the Freedom House and CPJ publications illustrate.

Adapting old strategies to new technologies

“What is most surprising about these Online Oppressors is not who they are – they are all nations with long records of repression – but how swiftly they adapted old strategies to the online world,” O’Brien writes in the CPJ report.

Despite the seeming deftness with which regimes adjust to and co-opt ICTs – from filtering search results to employing fleets of online commenters with nimble fingers paid per pro-regime post – a host of tools also exist for circumventing censorship.

These tactics are as new as they are old, including the use of code words in Chinese blogs, proxies to mask an Internet user’s location and surely the next, yet-to-be-developed crowd sourced tactic created with the intent to gather and disseminate information – a fundamental requisite of the public sphere, whether online or off.

When the Internet was “killed” in Egypt, bloggers and journalists found workarounds to ensure that the voices of people on the ground were not wholly muted.

“On the first day, there was a total blackout,” Hussaini told IPS. “By the second day, we went back to basics. People were using phones, calling people abroad, while other people were transcribing.”

IPS’s own Emad MacKay and Adam Morrow in Cairo relayed dispatches via landline to colleagues in New York and London, who rendered their words for publication.

“Other people were glued to their TV screens, watching Al-Jazeera,” Hussaini said. “People were tweeting and blogging based on what they saw.”

“We saw the masses in the squares. We saw the demonstrations. We saw the police beating them up and spraying them,” she recalled. “All the images were streamed live in our living rooms.”

But as creative and inspiring as circumvention methods may be, the sobering reality is that they shouldn’t be necessary in the first place, says Zuckerman.

“Circumvention tools can be helpful and valuable,” Zuckerman told IPS, “but the shutdown of the Egyptian Internet shows that a truly determined government can always ‘pull the plug’ if they’re willing to suffer the fiscal and PR consequences.”

*Follow Aprille on Twitter at @aprilledaughn.

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