Some Things Never Change: Governments Still Present Biggest Threat to Open Internet

Some things change, but others stay the same. While the types of threats facing Internet users worldwide have diversified over the past few years, from targeted malware to distributed denial of service attacks, one thing has remained constant: governments seeking to exert control over their populations still remain the biggest threat to the open Internet.

Corporate Compliance

This is no more apparent than in the latest edition of Google's Transparency Report. As Dorothy Chou explains on Google's Public Policy Blog, government requests for both user data (see this Deeplinks post for more details) and content removal is on the rise. Content removal requests were stagnant for quite some time, notes Chou, but have spiked during the first half of 2012, during which there were 1,791 requests from government officials around the world to remove 17,746 pieces of content.

While the reasons for takedown requests are myriad, defamation is the leading cause for government ire, representing nearly 40% of all requests, followed by privacy/security, which Chou explains refers to "government requests to remove content under certain privacy laws as they relate to an individual or politicians/police," noting that such requests can come either from courts or other governmental agencies. Google does not comply with every request, and the Transparency Report displays the rate of compliance for each country.

Censorship in Democracies

So, which countries are the worst offenders? Unsurprisingly, the United States once again tops the list (though, followed by Germany and Brazil. The three countries have almost consistently dominated the top since the creation of the Transparency Report in 2010. Other notable offenders for 2012 include Argentina, Turkey, and India.

It is noteworthy that all of the countries at the top of the list are democracies. It is even more noteworthy that several of these countries made requests that Google felt were frivolous. For example, they received five requests and one court order to remove seven YouTube videos for criticisms of local and state government agencies, law enforcement, or public officials in the United States--speech that is clearly protected under the First Amendment. While YouTube is not under any legal obligation to keep that content up (and thus should be lauded for doing so), the officials who made those requests should be ashamed of themselves. Similarly, Google received a request from a UK law enforcement agency to remove a YouTube video that criticized the agency for racism; they did not comply with that request either.

These frivolous requests are, unfortunately, indicative of the censorious behavior emerging from presumably democratic countries. The UK has recently forced ISPs and computer manufacturers to set up parental controls, while Russia--until recently considered a nominal democracy by most indices--has recently begun banning websites for the first time.

The Long Arm of Indian Law

Coercing companies into censoring online content is a relatively new phenomenon; some countries prefer more traditional means while others utilize a combination of tactics. India, about which EFF has expressed concerns in the past, recently made headlines once again for a case in which two young women were arrested after criticizing the effective shut down of Mumbai for the funeral of a right-wing Hindu leader on Facebook. While one of the young women wrote a post about it, the other merely "liked" the post.

Though Pranesh Prakash of Bangalore's Centre for Internet & Society calls the incident a "misapplication" of the law (Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which bans "outraging religious feelings of any class"), he notes also that the law has been used frivolously before in Maharashtra. Prakash also questions how the police managed to single out the comment made by the young woman.

According to a report today, the two women have been granted bail.

No Spring for the UAE

Nearly two years after the start of the Tunisian Revolution, its waves are still causing ripples throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Though the UAE has largely evaded protests, a presidential decree issued on November 12 bans the publication of material that would "endanger the security of the state." It also enacts prison sentences for those who call for regime change, organize demonstrations, or otherwise "threaten the legal system."

The UAE has come under fire from human rights advocates for stripping the citizenship of six activists who criticized the ruling regime, and for denying legal representation to and possibly torturing more than 60 people arrested for ties to a domestic Islamist group, Islah. In October, the European Parliament called for the UAE to respect human rights, and to immediately release prisoners of conscience.

Ratcheting Up Censorship Globally

Elsewhere in the world, things are not looking much better. China reportedly intensified its Internet controls it time for the Communist Party Congress, Syria continues to manipulate and surveil its networks, and rumors that Israel might disconnect Gaza from the Internet continue to abound.

At the global level, there are concerns that the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai will give governments--particularly repressive ones like China and Russia--too much control over the Internet. WCIT could result in decision-making capabilities over the Internet being handed to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a government-controlled agency of the United Nations, a scary thought given that some of the proposals being brought to the table would threaten privacy and legitimize censorship and surveillance. Among those taking action to prevent the ITU from gaining control are a broad coalition of global organizations (including EFF) and Google.

The People are a Check on Government Power

Who stands up to the power of governments when they threaten the open Internet? People do. While governments propose to filter and censor and shut down the Internet all over the world, whether by fiat or through legislation, coordinated action and protest has sometimes been able to turn back the tide. Last year, Italian Wikipedians made the decision to shut down the Italian version of the Wikipedia website to protest a wiretapping law being reviewed by Parliament that would have grossly endangered press freedom, stopping the law in its tracks. A few months later, this action inspired the SOPA/PIPA protests in the United States, overwhelming protests that helped to stop dangerous Internet blacklist legislation in the House and Senate. These tactics later inspired activists in Jordan as well as the Philippines where, after the Cybercrime Act passed at the beginning of October, deep concern from civil society--including the EFF--about the libel provision led the Philippines' top court to suspend the law for 120 days.

Civil society and non-government organizations like the EFF raise the alarm when governments threaten the open Internet. We fight back with legislative analysis and legal challenges and tools that make it harder for governments to filter and block your access to information. Free expression is a fundamental human right which does not disappear the moment you go online. And if governments are the greatest threat to an open Internet, then people are the best hope for protecting it.

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