Censorship fallout from the Arab Spring?
The use of ICT tools to drive reform protest movements captured the imaginations across North Africa and the Middle East. But it has also drawn the attention of repressive governments with an eye on censorship.
The use of Internet-based and other ICT tools to drive reform protest movements captured the imaginations of tech-savvy individuals across North Africa and the Middle East over the last year. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter helped drive street demonstrations in a dozen countries and secure international support for reform efforts around the world. But the trend has also drawn the attention of repressive governments and some within the ICT sector fear censorship battles may heat up in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt says his company fully expects to be the focus of disagreements with repressive regimes and fears Google employees may be at risk from detention and torture in some countries.
“I think this problem is going to get worse. The reason is that as the technology becomes more pervasive and as the citizenry becomes completely wired and the content gets localized to the language of the country, it becomes an issue like television,” Schmidt said at the Google-organized Dublin summit on militant violence this week.
“If you look at television in most of these countries, television is highly regulated because the leaders, partial dictators, half dictators or whatever you want to call them understand the power of television imagery to keep their citizenry in some bucket,” he continued.
Governments ramping up their efforts to shut down the information highway is something Internet service providers have been grappling with on and off for the last decade. Experience with China’s censorship efforts in particular has drawn significant attention. Yahoo! Inc. faced serious public backlash after its 2002 provision of user information led to the arrest, abuse and imprisonment of Wang Xiaoning.
Since then ICT sector players have clashed on and off with authorities in China, and elsewhere, as the tide of support for universal access has gained prominence. Both Google and Yahoo! are members of the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative, an effort to promote freedom of expression and privacy, and like other major ICT companies have initiated efforts to increase access to services in developing countries.
Earlier this month the United Nations affirmed its support of access to the Internet as a human right, with Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue issuing a report making the case for Internet access to enjoy the same legal protections under international standards as other methods of mass communications.
But the practical truth is that as long as authorities maintain control over networks and infrastructure, fully unhindered access to the Internet, its tools and information is still just dream for hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
The U.S. State Department confirmed shortly after the release of La Rue’s report that American authorities are investing millions to fund efforts to bypass government censorship through the use of “shadow” voice and digital communications networks that allow users to send information, according to the New York Times and other media. The benefit, say proponents of alternative networks, is that even in cases where dissidents can use circumvention technologies to sidestep censors, if authorities have slowed down network speeds users may still be unable to post most content.
A variety of innovative options are being considered – some of which sound like they could have come right out from Q’s workshop in a James Bond movie. Consider the following examples cited by the New York Times and other reports:
- The suitcase project uses small wireless antennas and base stations disguised as suitcases, boxes or bags to help transform electronic devices like cellular telephones or laptop computers and build a wireless Internet network that is outside official control. If authorities seize a unit once a core network is established in an area the other stations will compensate.
- U.S authorities are helping develop cellular telephone applications, or apps, such as the “panic button” which will erase a cellular telephone’s contact lists and emit an emergency signal to alert other activists.
- Another idea seeks to build on the use of Bluetooth headsets, which Iranian dissidents have used to transmit data outside authorities’ control. Developers are looking to create a system that allows users to mark data so that when other trusted individuals come into range their mobile devices automatically get the transfer.
Until governments around the world cease efforts to restrict Internet access and the international community develops a legally enforceable mechanism to compel countries to comply, censorship circumvention efforts will remain at the forefront of the battle for fair, equitable universal global access.