OSCE Voices the Need for Freedom on the Net

July 18th, 2011   Theme: Internet Freedom

“Promotion of pluralism in New Media” was discussed at a meeting early July 2011 arranged in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). A brand new report was presented – Freedom of Expression on the Internet. In the report it is stated that more and more countries block material on the web if you cannot access the source by other means – for example, because the origin is not in their own country. A recurring question during the meeting in Vienna was the lack of legal means to protect access to the Internet. Many felt that this lack creates a vacuum and a risk that various forms of censorship may be imposed.

In 12 percent of the OSCE’s member states the regimes are currently able, by legal means, to block access to the Internet. This happens most of the time if state authorities are not in a position to reach the perpetrators for prosecution or if their request for removal or take down of such content is rejected or ignored by foreign law enforcement authorities or hosting and content providers. This new blocking trend has been triggered in a number of countries as a result of increased piracy and intellectual property infringements on the Internet.

According to the report 60 percent of the citizens in the 56 OSCE member states have access to the Internet. It is further agued that within a decade the number of Internet users in the world will reach five billion. During the conference, Finland emerged as a beacon of legislation to protect access to the Internet. In Finland, since 1 July of last year, all citizens are entitled to broadband connection corresponding to one megabit per second.

“Two billion people currently use the Internet. This is a doubling in five years”, said Sanja Kelly, from Freedom House at the conference in Vienna and added: “More and more governments are becoming more and more restrictive in terms of Internet access.”

Sanja Kelly is an expert in this field, responsible for the collection and compilation of facts about the Internet at Freedom House. She sees several emerging problems in this area, including blocking and filtering.

“Some governments are blocking pornography. That is understandable. But in other countries blocked material entail human rights and news in general, in countries such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Though blocking and filtering by governments do also exist in the OSCE region. In Turkey for example the government blocks access to certain networks.”

“Filtering applies only to criminal acts, sexual exploitation of children and in regards to suicide. Blocking is done at the discretion of the courts”, argued Turkey’s official representative at the meeting in Vienna.

The OSCE report reveille that those in power in Belarus and Russia have lists of what type of material that embody the basis for a website to be blocked or shut down. The report notes that the Turkish government has launched the widest blocking strategy. Eleven different topics/content might lead to blockage.

Sanja Kelly pointed out that in states with weak or no democratic tradition explanations as to why blogs and other websites are blocked are rarely given. But even in democracies, those who had a page closed down have difficulties to appeal this decision. The problem expands, as it is not always crystal clear who made the decision. In many cases it is not the issue of a court, but different types of administrative bodies.

“Cyber attacks are increasing. This online warfare can be just as serious as a traditional war”, warned Sanja Kelly, stating that such warfare include technical attacks to disrupt the opposition. Here, China is one of the main culprits. But there is a growing problem in parts of the OSCE region. For example: the Belarusian regime used this kind of warfare before the elections in December 2010. Access to Internet was limited and websites were cloned – the traffic was diverted to these cloned sites where the visitors were given incorrect timetables for protests, etc.

“We have notice that more and more users of the Internet are threatened with jail for online activities. Within the OSCE, it is not as bad as in Iran and China. But we see that in Russia, for example, a law against extremism is used to act against the opposition for what they post online”, said Sanja Kelly.

Text: Elisabeth Precht

Read the OSCE/ODHIR report about Internet freedom >>

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