Free the Internet

February 10th, 2011   Theme: Internet Freedom

”Sweden was one of the first countries that put internet freedom on the international agenda. We have made this issue an important part of our work to promote human rights” says Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, while continuing:”I promise that we will remain a driving force in jointly promoting freedom and security on the internet.” Mr. Bildt’s point of view is reflected in this year’s declaration on foreign policy where it’s stated that “the free flow of information and a global electronic infrastructure is crucial to economic development as well as an increased degree of freedom in the world” Few people in the democratic countries of the world would disagree. Internet, as well as cell phones, has become a tool in the struggle for freedom and against oppression.

In combination with a widespread culture among users of sharing information over the internet, via e-mail and text messages, the access to uncomplicated and cheap cameras – including cell phone cameras – have made authoritarian abuse public. Many of us remember photos and films from 2007 when a Tibetan man protested against Chinese occupation. Lately, Iranian dissidents have managed to recount multiple violations – all thanks to new technology.

China takes the lead
China is the country with most imprisoned cyber dissidents. At the present time China holds in prison some seventy Chinese on the charges of using internet to voice their opinions. According to Reporters without Borders, close to forty thousand state and party employees watch over the internet traffic. In today’s China, more than a million citizens could access the internet. Out of these, about a forth is said to have their own blogs – which are frequently monitored by authorities.
According to the same organization 120 cyber dissidents (bloggers and netizens) currently inhabit prisons all over the world for publishing their opinions on the internet. These numbers include actions taken in ten different countries – in most of these voicing opinions over the internet is a criminal offence.
Compared to a year ago, the number of arrested bloggers and cyber dissidents has increased by 155 percent in 2009 (151 individuals compared to 59). The number of physically abused bloggers and cyber dissidents in the same period increased by 35 per cent (from 45 to 61 people). In addition, the number of countries using internet censorship increased from 37 to 60 countries, an increase by 62 percent.

The enemies of the internet
Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam are named enemies of the internet by Reporters without borders. In addition to these states, there is a list of monitored countries including Belarus.
When addressing the UN council of Human Rights, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Frank Belfrage voiced concerns regarding Belarus. He explained that there are some countries where the freedom of speech is gradually decreased, one of these countries being Belarus. Frank Belfrage noted that internet monitoring is used to map the habits of internet users. This information may later be used to harass and imprison dissidents in countries such as Burma, Cuba, Turkmenistan and North Korea.
It should be noted that other surveys, for instance a study published in 2009 by the think tank Freedom House, names Cuba the primary internet foe.

On the one hand…
As an increasing number of individuals gain access to the internet, there is an increased interest among authoritarian regimes to restrict the use. Even democratic regimes introduce certain control measures. In a Freedom House study published last year, concerns are raised of threats to Internet freedom as both repressive and democratic regimes gain knowledge on how to monitor and control online activities. The authors of the report raise the question of lacking transparency with regards to homepages and blogs, no matter what the motive of the censorship.
Maps at the OpenNet Initiative homepage indicate which countries that, for different reasons, use internet filtering. Sweden is included for its selective filtering. The reasoning is that “Content related to sexuality, gambling, and illegal drugs and alcohol, as well as other topics that may be socially sensitive or perceived as offensive.”
“Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton argued in a speech held at the end of January (referred in Washington Post on January 22, 2010). Meanwhile, she added that the same networks that support the spread of the ideas of freedom also make it possible for al-Qaida to “spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent.”
Hilary Clinton noted a peak in the number of threats to free flow of information in the last year. “China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained.”

Increased influence
The importance of Internet as a tool to further freedom is reflected in a European Parliament resolution published a few years ago. “The Internet has become the means of expression for political dissidents, human rights defenders and independent journalists worldwide”. In fact, few of us could picture common day life without internet access.
However, a prerequisite for all kind of freedom is justice. Freedom does not per se imply an exclusively positive effect. A legal framework is a necessary condition for freedom. Without rules and regulation preventing abuse, internet freedom soon might turn into an illusion.
Poverty does not prevent anybody from access to new media. Information put on the internet may be reached from everywhere. In addition, increased possibilities of transparency, for instance within public administration, bring about increased possibilities to influence. Thus, monitoring flows of information becomes crucial. For democratic regime, this is necessary to preserve freedom, for authoritarian leaders to preserve oppression.

Security is the key
Security on the internet is a key issue to preserve internet credibility. This includes the functioning of the networks as well as user integrity. Card- or account abductions have become increasingly common, as has identity take-over. There is no doubt the users have fallen behind compared to the abusers. These problems can not be solved solely on a national level. International co-operation is necessary to solve this cross border problem. The Council of Europe has made the first steps to prevent internet crimes through a convention on cyber crimes, also signed by the US.
Carl Bildt has argued that”The degree of cyber espionage and cyber warfare rests relatively unrevealed. However, according to American information, cyber attacks in the US increased by 30 percent between 2006 and 2007 and were by then ten times more frequent than in 2001. And I am most certainly not revealing any state secrets when admitting that Sweden, prior and during the EU chairmanship, was subjected to an immense increase in internet attacks. A significant amount of resources is dedicated to this purpose, and, unfortunately, by nature, the cost of protection against internet raids by far exceeds the cost for attacking.” (Svenska Dagbladet 21/1 2010).
“Much like the way the rule of the law is critical to protecting the freedoms we enjoy as citizens in our societies, and as international law protects the peace between our nations, we must seek to shape the rules that will protect the rights and the freedom of cyberspace,” Carl Bildt recently wrote in Washington Post. It should be noted that the UN Special Commissioner on Freedom of Speech has asked for Swedish help to initiate a meeting of experts aimed at defining principles for freedom of speech at the Internet. Sweden will host such a meeting in 2010.

Text: Elisabeth Precht, Head of Information at the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation; elisabeth.precht@hjalmarsonstiftelsen.se

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