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Cyber enemies

Sean Sinico
March 12, 2014

As the world recognizes the Day Against Cyber-Censorship, DW looks at a pair of countries that have long struggled with the issue. Internet users in Iran and China have known for years that they are under surveillance.

Symbolbild Reporter ohne Grenzen 2013 Pressefreiheit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Revelations from former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made it clear to people around the world that their digital communications are being tracked and saved by the US spy agency.

That was one of the reasons why the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ were included on the 2014 list of Enemies of the Internet published on Wednesday (12.03.2014) by Reporters Without Borders.

"The mass surveillance methods employed, many of them exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are all the more intolerable because they will be used and indeed are already being used by authoritarians countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to justify their own violations of freedom of information," the report said. "How will so-called democratic countries be able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?"

Symbolbild Internet Spionage Kriminalität Cyberangriffe
It's been a tough year for freedom of speech on the InternetImage: picture alliance/dpa

Inclusion on the press freedom group's list put the US and UK in the company of regimes in Tehran and Beijing, which have both come under heavy international criticism for their long-time censorship and surveillance of the Internet.

Iran: Fluctuation on the surface

Despite some minor loosening of restrictions under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, authorities in Iran have continued to develop a "national Internet" - the so-called "halal Internet" - that would cut off access to material deemed unacceptable, the report said.

"There have been fluctuations on the surface, including President Rouhani using Twitter, but the depth of the problem is intact," Arash Abadpour, a Toronto-based Iranian blogger, researcher and engineer, told DW. "The filtering regime is a reality, the National Internet is creeping in, and online activity is still criminalized."

Alle Informationen zum Iran online Tastatur Iran
A national 'halal' network could remove Iranians from the wider, public InternetImage: Fotolia/kebox

Filtering content, controlling Internet service providers, intercepting communications, staging cyber-attacks and imprisoning bloggers and Internet activists are common practice in Iran, Reporters Without Borders wrote.

The general reaction is to describe how horrific the National Internet is, and everyone calls for it to be abandoned," said Abadpour, a jury member of The Bobs, DW's award for online activism. "How this national project is going to be stopped is not known."

China: Self-censorship holds users in check

Such a national network, which provides services to people in Iran without connecting them to the wider, public Internet, could be developed with help of the Chinese Internet authorities responsible for creating the country's Great Firewall, which for years has censored or filtered online material from Internet users in China.

"Bloggers and journalists have a general idea of what content is permitted and what is banned, but the 'red lines' that must not be crossed can change at any time," Reporters Without Borders wrote in its report.

At a time when messages can cross the Internet nearly instantaneously and when Internet data traffic is growing, the government does not have the resources to monitor all Internet activity, which makes self-censorship especially powerful for the Chinese government, according to Hu Yong, a Chinese media critic and jury member of The Bobs.

"The threat of shutdown - either of certain products and services or the entire business - has caused Internet companies to employ a significant percentage of their workforce, as well as sophisticated screening algorithms, to comply with this requirement of self-censorship," Hu told DW, adding that authorities also tell Internet companies what terms, information or content must be deleted or blocked from their services.

In addition to having what Reporters Without Borders calls the world's most sophisticated Internet censorship system, China is also the world's biggest prison for online activists - with "at least 70 online information providers currently in prison because of their Internet activities."

Symbolbild Iran Internet Zensur
Chinese bloggers and journalists usually know what they can say and what will land them in jailImage: fotolia/mezzotint

Unchecked power

We Fight Censorship, a project run by Reporters Without Borders, lists 166 online activists in prison around the world - plus another three killed this year. Statistics like these were among the reasons the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists put cyberspace on its "Risk List" of the places where press freedom was most under threat.

But all the nations listed in the Enemies of the Internet report share one feature: the excesses of surveillance and censorship lie in a few people being able to determine what the public can read, write, and comment on, Abadpour said.

"The problem essentially lies in unchecked power. It doesn't really matter who has it," he said. "I would like to see 'unchecked power' on the list of enemies of not only the Internet, but the whole of humanity."

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