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Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Dictatorship 2.0: Bloggers as targets

Reporters Without Borders 2007 Worldwide rankings — done on their website as plain, flat web pages and hence very easy to find useful info — have highlighted a number of countries slipping down the index because "of serious, repeated violations of the free flow of online news and information".
A decade ago, regime opponents in Vietnam or Tunisia were still printing leaflets in their basements and handing them out to fellow militants at clandestine meetings. Independent newspapers were no more than a few hastily-stapled photocopies distributed secretly.

These days, “subversive” or “counter-revolutionary” material goes on the Internet and political dissidents and journalists have become “cyber-dissidents” and “online journalists.” Most of them know how to create a blog, organise a chat group, make phone calls through a computer and use a proxy to get round censorship.

New technology allows them to receive and share news out of sight of the authorities.

The Web is also a blessing for human rights groups, which can now build a file on a political prisoner with a few mouse-clicks instead of over weeks and sometimes months.

The Web makes networking much easier, for political activists as well as teenagers. Unfortunately, this progress and use of new tools by activists is now being matched by the efforts of dictatorships to fight them. Dictators too have entered the world of Web 2.0.
According to the group at least 64 people are currently imprisoned worldwide because of postings on the web, eight of them in Vietnam.

They flagged up the case of Abdel Kareem Soliman, an Egyptian blogger jailed for four years after he used his web log to criticise the country's top Islamic institution, al-Azhar university, and President Hosni Mubarak, whom he called a dictator.
The governments of repressive countries are now targeting bloggers and online journalists as forcefully as journalists in the traditional media.

More and more governments have realised that the Internet can play a key role in the fight for democracy and they are establishing new methods of censoring it. The governments of repressive countries are now targeting bloggers and online journalists as forcefully as journalists in the traditional media.

In Malaysia (124th), Thailand (135th), Vietnam (162nd) and Egypt (146th), for example, bloggers were arrested and news websites were closed or made inaccessible.

China maintains its leadership in this form of repression, with a total of 50 cyber-dissidents in prison.

Talking about Burma:
The Burmese government’s Internet policies are even more repressive than those of its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours. The military junta clearly filters opposition websites. It keeps a very close eye on Internet cafes, in which the computers automatically execute screen captures every five minutes, in order to monitor user activity. The authorities targeted Internet telephony and chat services in June, blocking Google’s Gtalk, for example. The aim was two-fold: to defend the profitable long-distance telecommunications market, which is controlled by state companies, as well as to stop cyber-dissidents from using a means of communication that is hard to monitor.
During the recent crisis the Net was, of course, a huge boon for journalists, but then the regime (like the Chinese) turned the tables, undercutting whether the Net makes any real difference:
Several Burmese journalists confirmed that the security services are circulating photos of demonstrators taken by citizen journalists or foreign reporters in police stations and among police informers. Scores of people have reportedly been arrested on the basis of these photos.
The same photos sent over the Web, before the regime shut it down.
The Internet was not designed to protect message confidentiality. It is fast and fairly reliable but also easy to spy on and censor. From the first mouse-click, users leave a trail and reveal information about themselves and what their tastes and habits are. This data is very valuable to commercial firms, who sort through it to target their advertising better.

The police also use it. The best way to spy on journalists a few years ago was still to send a plainclothes officer to stand outside their house. This can be done more cheaply and efficiently now, because machines can spy, report back and automatically prevent subversive conversations.

Cuba has installed spyware in cybercafé computers so that when users type “banned” words in an e-mail, such as the name of a known political dissident, they see a warning that they are writing things considered a “threat to state security” and the Web navigator then immediately shuts down.

China keeps a tight grip on what is written and downloaded by users and spends an enormous amount on Internet surveillance equipment and hires armies of informants and cyber-police.

It also has the political weight to force the companies in the sector - such as Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems - to do what it wants them to, and all have agreed to censor their search-engines to filter out websites overcritical of the authorities.

China has already signed an agreement with Skype to block key-words, so how can we be sure our conversations are not being listened to? How do we know if Skype will not also allow (or already has allowed) the Chinese police to spy on its customers?

It has become vital to examine new technology from a moral standpoint and understand the secondary effects of it. If firms and democratic countries continue to duck the issue and pass off ethical responsibility on others, we shall soon be in a world where all our communications are spied on.

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