Nations move to filter, censor access to Internet

Watchdog report; countries increasingly view cyberspace as strategically important

May 23, 2007
National Post
By Allison Hanes

The unbridled freedom that once characterized the Internet is gradually being reined in by states -- democratic and authoritarian alike--as cyberspace is increasingly viewed as a strategic, geopolitical frontier, according to the Canadian co-author of a new international report.

Waning are the days of the World Wide Web as a free-for-all of information accessible to anyone, said Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies and member of the OpenNet Initiative, which released its latest findings last week.

"Particularly since 2001, there's been a growing recognition of the way in which the Internet has facilitated all sorts of unintended consequences that these states find threatening, in particular the mobilization of opposition movements, militants, extremists networks, human rights information that exposes what non-democratic states do," Prof. Deibert said.

What began in 2002 as an effort by scholars at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and the U of T to monitor widespread Internet censorship by a handful of regimes has now been expanded into the world's freedom-of-information watchdog, keeping tabs on some 26 jurisdictions from Australia to Zimbabwe.

While countries such as China are known to have what Prof. Deibert calls "ambitious" and overarching filtering programs that bar access to certain Internet address or forbid certain key word searches, other states have begun interfering with the Internet suddenly and surreptitiously for short-term gain.

He points to recent elections in Belarus, where authorities gradually censored opposition Web sites, then slowly eased controls. During the Cambodian vote, the government shut down all text messaging.

"It points to a new type of just-in-time filtering, where states who are hesitant to be labelled as pariahs by openly filtering in the Chinese-style method instead look to these unconventional methods that are more difficult to monitor ... and yet are just as effective, especially during critical periods," Prof. Deibert said.

"There's a recognition among authorities that while these tools are very important for economic development, they can also unleash a lot of unforeseen consequences on the political spectrum and so they're looking for ways to control them with ever more fine-grained methods."

Western democracies are by no means immune to the trend of tightening Internet censorship, though Prof. Deibert pointed out that regulation is more transparent and accountable.

Australia, with no constitutionally enshrined free-expression laws, "maintains some of the most restrictive Internet policies of any Western nation," the OpenNet Initiative reports.

Australia regulates the availability of offensive content, issues takedown notices for Internet content hosted within the country and finances an "opt-in" filtering program that blocks undesirable content from outside of the country.

Canada does not actively impede access to the Web. Instead, it has anti-hate, antichild- pornography and defamation laws.

But themost interestingexampleofWeb censorship uncovered in Canada occurred in the private sector, the report says, referring to the case of a major telecommunications company blocking access to union sites during a labour dispute.

He added that the tools regimes such as Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are using to squelch free speech and undermine political opposition is the same made-in-America software being developed for businesses seeking to keep their employees off gambling sites and MySpace in the office.

A new era is dawning where countries increasingly view cyberspace as a zone of strategic importance to their national security as well as their economies, Prof. Deibert said. "So you've seen a great effort, beginning with the United States but also among Russia and China, to develop information warfare methods and doctrines. So I think that has effectively unleashed what I would call an arms race in cyberspace."