Privacy International report warns of an escalation of internet restrictions



Corporations are now vying with governments to gag free speech and impede Internet access

Media release, 19th September 2003, For immediate release

A new global study of Internet censorship in over fifty countries and regions has found that Internet restrictions, government secrecy and communications surveillance have reached an unprecedented level across the world. The twelve-month study has found that a sharp escalation in control of the Internet since September 2001 may have outstripped the traditional ability of the medium to repel attempts at restriction.

The report fires a broadside at the United States and the United Kingdom for creating initiatives hostile to Internet freedom. Those countries have led a global attack on free speech on the Internet. They have set a technological and regulatory standard for mass surveillance and control of the Internet.

The report, Silenced, will be launched today (Friday) at the preparatory meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva. The 70,000 word report - the largest and most comprehensive of its kind ever produced - was compiled and edited by the London-based Privacy International and the GreenNet Educational Trust.

This study has found that censorship of the Internet is commonplace in most regions of the world. The report warns: "It is clear that in most countries over the past two years there has been an acceleration of efforts to either close down or inhibit the Internet. In some countries, for example in China and Burma, the level of control is such that the Internet has relatively little value as a medium for organised free speech, and its used could well create additional dangers at a personal level for activists".

"The September 11, 2001 attacks have given numerous governments the opportunity to promulgate restrictive policies that their citizens had previously opposed. There has been an acceleration of legal authority for additional snooping, from increased email monitoring to the retention of Web logs and communications data. Simultaneously, governments have become more secretive about their own activities, reducing information that was previously available and refusing to adhere to policies on freedom of information".

In finding a substantial level of censorship in many countries, the report condemns the complicity of Western nations. "Governments of developing nations rely on Western countries to supply them with the necessary technologies of surveillance and control, such as digital wiretapping equipment, deciphering equipment, scanners, bugs, tracking equipment and computer intercept systems. The transfer of surveillance technology from first to third world is now a lucrative sideline for the arms industry. Without the aid of this technology transfer, it is unlikely that non-democratic regimes could impose the current levels of control over Internet activity."

One of the most important trends in recent years is the growth of multinational corporate censors. The report says: "It is arguable that in the first decade of the 21st century, corporations will rival governments in threatening Internet freedoms. Aggressive protection of corporate intellectual property has resulted in substantial legal action against users, and a corresponding deterioration in trust across the Internet".

The report notes numerous instances where Internet users have been jailed by authorities for posting or hosting political material. Such countries include Egypt, China and a number of Middle Eastern countries. The Internet is tightly controlled and heavily monitored in regions such as these.

The Internet is a fragile and easily controlled medium. In Africa, governments in such countries as Kenya and Zimbabwe have at times literally shut it down. The Saudi government over a period of just three months blocked access to more than 400,000 websites that were regarded as immoral. A wide variety of methods are used to restrict and/or regulate Internet access. These include: applying draconian laws and licenses, content filtering, tapping and surveillance, pricing and taxation policies, telecommunication markets manipulation, hardware and software manipulation and self censorship

The study does however report that there are some positive developments. "Countries have established protections, companies have fought for the rights of privacy of individuals, technologies have sustained the ability of dissident groups to speak freely and access content privately. Differences in national laws have sheltered the speech of the oppressed. Technological developments are being implemented to protect a free Internet, but the knowledge gap between radical innovators and restrictive institutions appears to be closing".

One of the report's editors, Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, said: "It is clear that democratic nations such as the US and the UK have failed to set an acceptable benchmark for free speech. Non-democratic regimes look to the West for technologies and techniques of repression".

"The report sounds a warning that we must move quickly to preserve the remaining freedoms on the Internet before they are systematically extinguished".

Notes to editors:

- The report is available online on the Privacy International website at http://www.privacyinternational.org/survey/censorship/

- Silenced is an independent research initiative managed jointly by Privacy International and the GreenNet Educational Trust. The twelve-month project was undertaken through a collaboration of more than fifty experts and advocates throughout the world. The work was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

- Privacy International (PI) www.privacyinternational.org is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, and has an office in Washington, D.C. Together with members in 40 countries, PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security activities, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, and medical privacy, and works with a wide range of parliamentary and inter-governmental organisations such as the European Parliament, the House of Lords and UNESCO.

- GreenNet Educational Trust (GET) was established to promote the advancement of education to support, encourage and promote research into the use of computers, electronic communications and information technology by the general public. It is the parent company of GreenNet Limited, a not for profit Internet Service Provider dedicated to supporting and promoting groups and individuals working for peace, human rights and the environment through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). More information about our work can be found at: www.greenneteducationaltrust.org.uk.

- Simon Davies can be reached at simon@privacy.org and within the UK on 07958 466 552 or (+44) 7958 466 552 from outside the UK.


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