Online surveillance threatens Internet freedom | World | Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 12.03.2013

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Online surveillance threatens Internet freedom

Iran and China are both - once again - among the "State Enemies of the Internet" by Reporters Without Borders. Bloggers from the two countries tell DW about online filtering and censorship in their home countries.

A keyboard with handcuffs on it

Symbolbild Iran Internet Zensur

Authoritarian regimes continue to engage in a variety of surveillance and censorship activities against the media and rights activists. The human rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) named Bahrain, China, Iran, Syria and Vietnam "State Enemies of the Internet," on Tuesday (12.03.2013), the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.

RSF said the five countries’ governments "are involved in active, intrusive surveillance of news providers, resulting in grave violations of freedom of information and human rights."

"Increasingly widespread cyber-censorship and cyber-surveillance are endangering the Internet model that the Net’s founders envisaged: the Internet as place of freedom, a place for exchanging information, content and opinions, a place that transcended frontiers," the Paris-based NGO said in a statement.

China’s online revolution

China currently jails more people involved in news and information than any other country in the world, with 30 journalists and 69 online activists in Chinese prisons. The country has also actively engaged in censoring, filtering and monitoring online communications for information it deems sensitive.

Hu Yong

Hu Yong says microblogging is critical in China

Despite the surveillance and censorship of the Internet in China, known collectively as "the Great Firewall," there is a "revolution going on in the interactive and user-generated world of forums, video sharing, social networks, blogs and microblogs," according to Hu Yong, an associate professor in the school of journalism and communication at Peking University and a jury member for The Bobs, DW’s annual award for online activism.

"Microblogging has for the first time allowed millions of Chinese to have a voice unfettered by the express dictates of State and Party propaganda and to receive mostly unfiltered news and commentary from millions of fellow netizens, and even though it is interrupted and blocked at every turn, it’s out there and difficult to stop entirely," he told DW.

By spreading information online in short message that can easily be shared across cyberspace, Chinese microbloggers have helped reporters and citizens get to know more about China than is propagated by official media, Hu said.

"These trends bring with them the promise of further development of an independent and vibrant Chinese civil society," he added.

Pointing to Internet’s evils an Iranian ritual

As in China, the Iranian government has monitored and censored the Internet for years, going as far as expressing its desire to create a "Halal Internet" for people inside the country.

A keyboard with a key labelled 'Iran'

Iran monitors and censors the Internet out of fear, Abadpour said.

The Iranian Internet, according to RSF, is not more political than in other countries, it’s just more closely watched.

"Anything straying from the official line is automatically deemed to be ‘political’ and subject to filtering or surveillance," RSF said. "Fashion, cuisine and music websites are often blocked just as opposition and independent news websites are."

Iran’s government censors and filters the Internet at least partially out of fear of what the free spread of information could do to it, according to Arash Abadpour, an Iranian blogger currently based in Canada and a jury member for The Bobs.

"The Iranian state is afraid of the Internet, and, therefore, they limit investment in the infrastructure," he told DW.

Arash Abadpour

Abadpour called online censorship ‘a disease that needs to be operated on' not rallied around

In a research report he released in March, Abadpour and co-author Collin Anderson wrote, "Journalists, social activists, political opponents and ordinary citizens are routinely arrested and tried under charges such as ‘undermining national security’ and ‘disturbing the public order’ after speaking out against the status quo."

Tehran’s long history of pointing to the Internet as a source of crime and immorality could have associated it with evil activities in the minds of Iranian Internet users, Abadpour said, but added that a free Internet with no rules at all was also an impossibility.

"The point is to have reasonable control," he said. "The discussion should be how reasonable a particular interpretation of ‘reasonable’ is."

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