Thursday, June 7, 2007

Online repression rising: Amnesty International

CBC News

The internet is increasingly being used to repress free expression worldwide and technology companies are complicit, speakers at an Amnesty International webcast discussion of online censorship said Wednesday.

The discussion — marking the one-year anniversary of Amnesty's Irrepressible campaign — featured internet experts and free speech activists from around the world who described a growing phenomenon of censorship and repression being enabled by the internet even as people use the medium to gain a voice.

"Governments still fear dissenting opinion and the new technology, as well as helping out freedom, is giving new tools to those who want to curtail that freedom," Kamal Ahmed, executive editor of the Observer newspaper said in his opening remarks.

Pointing to companies like Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., which have been accused by human rights groups of helping governments censor free speech and repress their citizens, Ahmed noted that raising awareness of the issues confronting internet users and the companies involved in them is crucial to ensure that access remains free to all.

"It must be one of the most important issues of the century," Ahmed said.

University of Toronto professor Ron Deibert joined the discussion online, pointing out that the amount of content filtering has sharply increased since he began monitoring and tracking such efforts four years ago.

"The picture is rather troublesome," Deibert, director of technology and democracy project CitizenLab, told those present and watching online. "The scope, scale and sophistication of internet surveillance and content filtering is growing worldwide."

Deibert said that when he and the OpenNet Initiative began tracking countries engaged in content filtering, they found such evidence in only four nations out of 41 they looked at. Four years on, that number has risen to 25, pointing to an alarming trend.

Another trend is the increasing amount of content that is being censored. Now they're blocking a much wider swath, Deibert said.

The list has grown to include human rights information, independent news sites, blogs and blogging service sites, and online information in local languages — anything that could be used to help people assert their rights or become more informed about the world around them, he said.

Enabling this effort is technology — commercial software and hardware — much of it made in the U.S., Deibert said.

Companies like Secure Computing Corp., Fortinet Inc. and Websense Inc. are among those whose software is used by repressive regimes, he said. The countries are now using a technique called just-in-time filtering, he added.

"[Countries] leave the internet open most of the time except around special events like elections, then they slowly turn the tap off," Deibert said, adding that by using this approach, the governments maintain plausible deniability that they are behind any censorship but still achieve their goals.

"In light of what has gone on in Estonia, the prospect of an arms race in cyberspace is very real and has to be taken into account," Deibert said, expressing concern about official U.S., Russian and Chinese internet doctrines. "We can no longer take the internet for granted as a tool that helps human rights…. [It] is being carved up, colonized and militarized."

In May, Estonia's internet infrastructure was crippled by a massive attack that coincided with a sharp decline in the Baltic state's relations with Russia, which was threatening sanctions over a decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial. Moscow denied responsibility for the attacks, although they appeared to originate in Russia.

Companies that aid and abet activity that helps repress free expression must be called to account for their actions, said Morton Sklar of the World Organization for Human Rights.

"U.S.-based corporations are playing a major role in the latest iteration of how … rights are being repressed," the executive director of the Washington, D.C., rights organization told the audience after joining the discussion online. "They must be held accountable."

Alleging Yahoo, Google and internet hardware maker Cisco Systems Inc. are just a few linchpins of online repression, he called on them to correct their ways, but added the only way that was likely to happen would be if they were forced to.

'When it reaches a point when a corporation is contributing to torture, contributing to arbitrary detention, they have to ask if this is something they should do.'—Morton Sklar, World Organization for Human Rights
"When it reaches a point when a corporation is contributing to torture, contributing to arbitrary detention, they have to ask if this is something they should do," Sklar said.

He focused on the case of Wang Xiaoning, who criticized the Chinese government online and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.

The group is suing Yahoo, alleging Chinese bloggers, journalists and human rights advocates have been detained, imprisoned and tortured on the basis of information that Yahoo gave authorities there.

"People need to be more aware of these cases that the internet is being used in this way to create torture and repression," Sklar said, noting that a resolution is on the agenda at Yahoo's June 12 shareholders' meeting would require Yahoo to form a human rights committee to examine how it should handle some cases.

Concerns about censorship and repression should not be reserved only for countries with poor human rights records, according to participants in the Amnesty webcast.

"This is something people in the West should be worried about as well," BBC technology correspondent Clark Boyd told the audience before introducing an American video-blogger.

Josh Wolf served more than 220 days in a federal prison after he refused to turn over to authorities tapes of an anti-G8 protest he recorded in 2005, citing journalistic privilege.

"I go out to gather information and disseminate it to the public," Wolf said. "That's a journalist."

His prison time has earned him the distinction of experiencing the longest imprisonment of any journalist in the United States for refusing to surrender his work to authorities, and has sharply highlighted the need for a federal shield law for the media.

"As we take steps to protect … the professional press, we have to think about bloggers as well," Wolf said

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