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Organization Warns Internet a Victim of 9/11

Legislation passed in Western countries after the Sept. 11 attacks have led to increased internet surveillance that is curbing the civil liberties of regular citizens, the organization Reporters Without Borders warns.


The Sept. 11 terror attacks made it easier for Chinese authorities to crack down on Internet cafes

In its latest report, the leading international freedom of speech organization Reporters without Borders declares the Internet as belonging "to the list of 'collateral damage'" of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Warning that in the war against terrorism, governments are increasingly censoring and controlling the Internet, the group says countries participating under the umbrella of international effort -- including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Vietnam and China -- are stepping up measures against dissidents and resistance groups in the name of combating terror groups.

Repression on the rise

"In some countries, for example China, repression has increased markedly since Sept. 11," said Régis Bourgeat of Reporters without Borders in Paris. "The authorities are clamping down on people who allegedly distribute dangerous information over the Internet or in some way make themselves unpopular with the authorities. Up until now, there are more than 30 people being held in jail on these grounds.

"The battle against terrorism has been used as a pretext to close Internet cafes and then to later reopen them under stricter conditions," he said.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the report is that it doesn't just focus on the usual suspects for freedom of speech violations. It also points to the dangers to free speech posed by the very Western nations that have long championed the concept.

New security measures in the West, the report warns, represent a "new threat" to freedoms. It states that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had effectively become "a potential arm of the police" that collects information about users and then passes it along to governments.

"Access to this mass of information is being given with alarming ease to police and intelligence services," it reads. "This unprecedented abuse means all citizens are theoretically under suspicion."

"The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the G8 nations have all challenged cyber-freedoms over the past year," said Robert Ménard, the organization's secretary general, after announcing the report.

"Yet these are countries with deep-rooted secular and democratic traditions whose citizens fought long and hard to win their right to free expression, the confidentiality of mail and the right of journalists not to reveal their sources," he said.

Germany, Denmark, Spain singled out

The report contains specific criticism of new laws passed in major industrial nations, and cites Germany specifically for its new package of anti-terrorism security laws.

Under the new laws, the report says, police and intelligence agencies have unlimited access to the same INPOL police database as well as access to computer data including telecommunications records, content of email messages and data about email exchanges.

Denmark's legislature in May passed a law that permits law enforcement authorities to track information about phone calls, Internet activity and individual emails. The anti-terrorist law permits intelligence agents and police to consult that information without the permission of a judge.

An anti-terrorism law passed in Spain, meanwhile, requires that ISPs maintain records of customers' email and Internet activities for one year. But police and intelligence officials are only allowed to access the records with a judge's permission.

But none of those laws go as far as the so-called "USA Patriot Act," passed by the American Congress on Oct. 24., which permits law enforcement agencies to require ISPs to install software that tracks and records customers' email messages.

Under the act, law enforcement and intelligence officials can gain access to the information without first going to the courts. Additionally, the law granted the FBI permission to disseminate a virus over the Internet to suspected terrorists that overcomes encryption technologies by recording the key clicks as people type on their computer keyboards and then passing it back to police.

Such developments worry officials at Reporters without Borders. The global battle against terrorism and the many legal measures undertaken in the West in the wake of Sept. 11 have led to undesirable and regrettable results, the say: Now, the press freedoms of black sheep could be limited in the name of anti-terrorism or other repressive measures could be taken against dissidents.

However, Bougeat maintains some optimism that the democratic potential of the Internet will prevail in the end.

"I believe that the biggest advantage of the Internet is also its biggest disadvantage. It's a worldwide network and no state or nation can enforce any effective law or regulation," he said.

"I believe that the Internet creates more benefit than damage."

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