Freedom on the Net 2014 – The fifth annual comprehensive study of internet freedom around the globe, covering developments in 65 countries that occurred between May 2013 and May 2014 –finds internet freedom around the world in decline for the fourth consecutive year, with 36 out of 65 countries assessed in the report experiencing a negative trajectory during the coverage period.
In a departure from the past, when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control, countries rapidly adopted new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent.
The past year also saw increased government pressure on independent news websites, which had previously been among the few uninhibited sources of information in many countries, in addition to more people detained or prosecuted for their digital activities than ever before.
Between May 2013 and May 2014, 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalize legitimate forms of speech online, increase government powers to control content, or expand government surveillance capabilities.
Since May 2013, arrests for online communications pertinent to politics and social issues were documented in 38 of the 65 countries, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, where detentions occurred in 10 out of the 11 countries examined in the region.
Pressure on independent news websites, among the few unfettered sources of information in many countries, dramatically increased. Dozens of citizen journalists were attacked while reporting on conflict in Syria and antigovernment protests in Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine. Other governments stepped up licensing and regulation for web platforms.
See also: The Economist ~ How protestors evade digital censorship
Government censorship in the face of unrest is nothing new. And as social media become an increasingly important tool in the protestor’s arsenal, some governments have responded by tightening their grip on the internet. So how do protestors evade digital censorship?
First, protesters are using new, or newer technology than that of the governments trying to muffle them. Hong Kong’ s protestors are using an app called “FireChat” to work around China’s control of the web. The application uses direct Bluetooth links between handsets in a crowd, meaning protestors can still communicate via messages and forums, even without a mobile network or access to other forms of social media.
Second, tech savvy protestors in Turkey used VPNs – Virtual Private Networks. These allow users to mask the address of their devices, meaning they seem to be wherever the VPN provider is. Now that the user appears to be located somewhere like Indianapolis instead of Istanbul, they can access Twitter and other banned sites when the government has blocked local access.
Another technology called Tor, goes a step further. Tor anonymises users by bouncing their traffic through a network of volunteer computers. In the days following the contested 2009 election in Iran, the number of people using Tor to protect their online identity surged. Originally funded by the US government, some people (like Edward Snowden) also use it to evade surveillance by the very government that helped launch it.
The web was built to be fault-tolerant – information is simply re-routed if the network is tampered with. As unrest unfolds around the world, people and social networks are upholding that same idea.
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