Surveillance and Crackdown

Since the 1990’s, the Internet has been used to circumvent state controls on media as well as limited access to mainstream media:

The African National Congress used the Internet to break a near-complete blackout in local media [during Apartheid]. Nigerian journalists, especially those who continue facing press censorship feel that it would be impossible for them to function without the help of this technology. Singaporeans using the Internet have been able to express their mature understanding of local political processes and to demand respect for human rights. Individuals in Indonesia break the silence imposed on political discussions using the Internet. A group in Bangladesh is able to use the Internet to cover issues and events usually ignored by mainstream print media. A women’s group in Senegal was able to organize solidarity through the Internet, which helped to gain clemency for a women from the Ivory Coast who was a victim of prevailing [inhuman] norms for marriage. In February 1996, faced with the government ban on their on-line publication, the Zambian news paper - The Post approached international community for support using the Internet. Within a week the newspaper became available on-line on a server based in the United States.

NGOs’ use of mailing lists and Web pages with feedback facilities has also expanded their ability to gather information from countries where local media are biased or government-controlled. During ethnic violence in Bosnia, the February 1997 riots in city of Yining in North West region of China, and civil disturbances in East Timor where it has been difficult and dangerous for outside visitors to collect facts on-site, use of electronic communications became a vital source for these organizations.” Source: Jagdish Parikh, Testing the Limits of Free Expression, 1998. Unpublished.


However, the Internet is not the “safe space” it was once perceived to be. Governments, with the help of private industry, are aggressively pursuing technical means to monitor and control Internet usage and content.

Old style censorship [in China] is being replaced with a massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance: the Golden Shield. Ultimately the aim is to integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network – incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records, and Internet surveillance technologies. This has been facilitated by the standardization of telecommunications equipment to facilitate electronic surveillance, an ambitious project led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US, and now adopted as an international standard. [source]

In 2004, the government of China announced the deployment a a new high-speed network over hardware designed by a collaboration between a government Ministry, a state-run university, and the military’s Information Engineering College. Given China’s aggressive push for information control, increasing the level of government design over the network infrastructure would seem to increase the likelihood that information controls may be built into the network infrastructure.

The report implicates several Western companies involved in the development of a repressive state security apparatus. The international trade in surveillance technology from developed countries to developing countries — and particularly to non-democratic regimes — is a global trend.

A December 2003 report to Congress of the FBI’s use of Carnivore, an Internet surveillance program, suggests that the FBI dropped Carnivore two years ago in favor of commercially available tools. And in March 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission required Internet Service Providers to build surveillance capability into the design of their systems.

As of December 2004, Reporters without Borders had documented 71 cyberdissidents imprisoned for their activities on the Internet that year: one each in Syria and Iran, three in Maldives, four in Vietnam, and sixty-two in China.

Also in December, the Internet Society of China announced they had closed down 1,129 pornographic and other illegal Web sites since the nationwide crackdown began this July. The report notes that “their information has also helped to uncover 254 criminal cases and capture 445 suspects.”

However, Duncan Clark, director of a Beijing consulting firm, notes, “China’s rapidly emerging middle classes, numbering tens if not hundreds of millions, are dependent on the Internet and the Internet is dependent on them. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle now, and no real attempt to do so.” [source]

Still, users continue to develop their own technologies and techniques to route around content controls.

State laws are still bound borders, and posting copies of sensitive content on Web servers around the world (also known as “mirroring”) is a simple way to evade content controls in a particular country. Users may also access the Internet from a neighboring country with fewer content restrictions, for instance dialing from Cuba into Jamaica, or from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain.

In an increasingly globalized world this is also no guarantee of safety: in October 2004, the U.S. F.B.I. ordered the seizure two Indymedia Web servers in the U.K. from a space owned by a U.S. corporation “at the request of Italian and Swiss authorities.” [source]

Last modified on January 19, 2006 03:32 PM

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