Studie der US-amerikanischen NGO "Freedom House" zur Freiheit des Internet, 24.9.2012 (engl. Originalfassung)
As of 2012, nearly a third of the world’s population has used the internet, and an even greater portion possesses a mobile phone. The internet has transformed the way in which people obtain news, conduct business, communicate with one another, socialize, and interact with public officials. Concerned with the power of new technologies to catalyze political change, many authoritarian states have taken various measures to filter, monitor, or otherwise obstruct free speech online. These tactics were particularly evident over the past year in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and China, where the authorities imposed further restrictions following the political uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, in which social media played a key role.
To illuminate the nature of these evolving threats and identify areas of growing opportunity, Freedom House has conducted a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 47 countries around the globe. This report is the third in its series and focuses on developments that occurred between January 2011 and May 2012. The previous edition, covering 37 countries, was published in April 2011. Freedom on the Net 2012 assesses a greater variety of political systems than its predecessors, while tracing improvements and declines in the countries examined in the previous two editions. Over 50 researchers, nearly all based in the countries they analyzed, contributed to the project by researching laws and practices relevant to the internet, testing the accessibility of select websites, and interviewing a wide range of sources.
This year’s findings indicate that restrictions on internet freedom in many countries have continued to grow, though the methods of control are slowly evolving and becoming less visible. Of the 47 countries examined, 20 have experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia registering the greatest declines. In Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, the downgrades reflected intensified censorship, arrests, and violence against bloggers as the authorities sought to quell public calls for political and economic reform. Declines in Mexico occurred in the context of increasing threats of violence from organized crime, which began to directly influence free speech online. Ethiopia presented an unusual dynamic of growing restrictions in a country with a tiny population of users, possibly reflecting a government effort to establish more sophisticated controls before allowing access to expand. And Pakistan’s downgrade reflected extreme punishments meted out for dissemination of allegedly blasphemous messages and the increasingly aggressive efforts of the telecom regulator to censor content transmitted via information and communications technologies (ICTs).
At the same time, 14 countries registered a positive trajectory. In some countries—such as Tunisia, Libya, and Burma—this was the result of a dramatic regime change or political opening. Elsewhere—as in Georgia, Kenya, and Indonesia—the improvements reflected a growing diversity of content and fewer cases of arrest or censorship than in previous years. The remaining gains occurred almost exclusively in established democracies, highlighting the crucial importance of broader institutions of democratic governance—such as elected representatives, free civil society, and independent courts—in upholding internet freedom. While proposals that could negatively affect internet freedom did emerge in democratic states, civil society, the media, and the private sector were more likely to organize successful campaigns to prevent such proposals from being formally adopted, and the courts were more likely to reverse them. Only 4 of the 20 countries that recently experienced declines are considered electoral democracies. Despite the noted improvements, restrictions on internet freedom continue to expand across a wide range of countries. Over the past decade, governments have developed a number of effective tools to control the internet. These include limiting connectivity and infrastructure, blocking and filtering content that is critical of the regime, and arresting users who post information that is deemed undesirable. In 2011 and 2012, certain methods that were previously employed only in the most oppressive environments became more widely utilized.
To counter the growing influence of independent voices online, an increasing number of states are turning to proactive manipulation of web content, rendering it more challenging for regular users to distinguish between credible information and government propaganda. Regimes are covertly hiring armies of pro-government bloggers to tout the official point of view, discredit opposition activists, or disseminate false information about unfolding events. This practice was in the past largely limited to China and Russia, but over the last year, it has been adopted in more than a quarter of the countries examined. The Bahraini authorities, for example, have employed hundreds of “trolls” whose responsibility is to scout popular domestic and international websites, and while posing as ordinary users, attack the credibility of those who post information that reflects poorly on the government.
Both physical and technical attacks against online journalists, bloggers, and certain internet users have also been on the rise in 2011 and 2012, demonstrating that the tactics previously used against opposition journalists are now being applied to those writing in the online sphere as well. Moreover, the attacks have become more violent. In Azerbaijan, for example, a prominent journalist and contributor to several online news sites died of stab wounds after being attacked by unknown assailants. In Mexico, for the first time, individuals who had circulated information online about organized crime and corruption were brutally murdered, with the killers often leaving notes that cited the victim’s online activities.
As another method of controlling speech and activism online, governments have imposed temporary shutdowns of the internet or mobile phone networks during mass protests, political events, or other sensitive times. While the most widely reported example occurred in Egypt in January 2011, this report’s findings reveal that both nationwide and localized shutdowns are becoming more common. Prior to its downfall, the Qadhafi regime in Libya shut off the internet nationwide in March 2011, and large swaths of the country remained disconnected until August 2011. Select regions in Syria have experienced repeated internet shutdowns during 2011 and 2012, as the regime has tried to prevent citizens from spreading information and videos about the government’s attacks on civilians. Localized internet shutdowns also occurred in China and Bahrain during antigovernment protests, and localized mobile phone shutdowns occurred in India and Pakistan due to security concerns.
Based on the types of controls implemented, many of the countries examined in this edition of Freedom on the Net can be divided into three categories:
1. Blockers: In this set of countries, the government has decided to block a large number of politically relevant websites, often imposing complete blocks on certain social-media platforms. The state has also invested significant resources in technical capacity and manpower to identify content for blocking. Among the countries that fall into this category are Bahrain, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Syria, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. Although most of these governments employ a range of other tactics to curb internet freedom—including imposing pressure on bloggers and internet service providers, hiring pro-government commentators, and arresting users who post comments that are critical of the authorities—they use blocking and filtering as a key tool for limiting free expression. Over the past year, governments in this group have continued to refine their censorship apparatus and devoted greater energy to frustrating user attempts to circumvent the official blocking.
2. Nonblockers:In this category, the government has not yet started to systematically block politically relevant websites, though the authorities may have demonstrated interest in restricting online content, particularly after witnessing the role online tools can play in upending the political status quo. Most often, these governments seek the appearance that their country has a free internet, and prefer to employ less visible or less traceable censorship tactics, such as behind-the-scenes pressure from government agents to delete content, or anonymous cyberattacks against influential news sites at politically opportune times. These states also tend to have a harsh legal framework surrounding free speech, and in recent years have arrested individuals who posted online information that is critical of the government. Among the countries that fall into this category are Azerbaijan, Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
3. Nascent blockers:These countries—including Belarus, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Russia— appear to be at a crossroads. They have started imposing politically motivated blocks, but the system has not yet been institutionalized, and it is often sporadic. For example, in Russia, the government officially blocks material deemed to promote “extremism,” but due to the vague definition of extremism, political websites are occasionally blocked as well. In addition, regional courts in Russia have at times ordered the blocking of websites that unveil local corruption or challenge local authorities. Other countries in this group, such as Pakistan, have seriously considered instituting nationwide filtering, but have not yet implemented it, thus not fully crossing into the first category.
Despite the growing threats, the study’s findings reveal a significant uptick in citizen activism related to internet freedom, which has produced several notable mobilization efforts and legislative victories. In several European countries, fierce public opposition to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has prompted governments to step away from ratification of the treaty. In Pakistan, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists played a key role in exposing and resisting the government’s plan to impose systematic, nationwide filtering. In Turkey, demonstrations against a proposal to implement mandatory filtering of content deemed “harmful” to children and other citizens drew as many as 50,000 people, prompting the government to back down and render the system voluntary. In the United States, campaigns by civil society and technology companies helped to halt passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which were criticized for their potentially negative effects on free speech. The simultaneous blacking out of popular websites by their administrators as a form of protest helped increase public awareness of the two bills, and the tactic has since been repeated in countries like Jordan and Italy in the face of potentially restrictive legislation.
In largely democratic settings, the courts have started to play an instrumental role in defending internet freedom and overturning laws that may infringe on it. In Hungary, the Constitutional Court decided in December 2011 that the country’s restrictive new media regulations would not be applicable to online news sources and portals. In South Korea in August 2012, the Constitutional Court issued its third decision favorable to internet freedom in two years, ruling against the realname registration system. In countries where the judiciary is not independent, public and international pressure ultimately yielded executive branch decisions that nullified negative court rulings. In Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Egypt, Syria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, at least one jailed blogger or internet activist was pardoned or released from extralegal detention following a highprofile campaign on his or her behalf. And in a dramatic reversal from previous practice, dozens of activists were released from prison in Burma, though the restrictive laws under which they had been jailed remained in place.
Since 2011, China has exerted a greater influence in the online world, emerging as an incubator for sophisticated new types of internet restrictions. The Chinese method for controlling social-media content—restricting access to international networks while coercing their domestic alternatives to robustly censor and monitor user communications according to Communist Party directives—has become a particularly potent model for other authoritarian countries. Belarus’s autocratic president has praised China’s internet controls, and Uzbekistan has introduced several social-media platforms on which users must register with their real names and administrators have preemptively deleted politically sensitive posts. In Iran, a prominent internet specialist likened the intended outcome of the country’s proposed National Internet scheme to the Chinese censorship model, with users enjoying “expansive local connections,” but having their foreign communications filtered through a “controllable channel.” Meanwhile, reports have emerged of Chinese experts, telecommunications companies, or hackers assisting the governments of Ethiopia, Libya, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Zimbabwe with attempts to enhance their technical capacity to censor, monitor, or carry out cyberattacks against regime opponents.
Alongside China, authoritarian countries such as Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have recently increased efforts on the international stage to institutionalize some of the restrictions they already implement within their own borders. For example, this coalition of states in 2011 submitted to the United Nations General Assembly a proposal for an internet “code of conduct,” which would, among other things, legitimize censoring of any website that “undermines political and social order.” Moreover, some of these countries have been at the forefront of an effort to expand the mandate of the International Telecommunication Union—a UN agency—to include certain internet-related matters, which could negatively impact free expression, user privacy, and access to information.
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