Thursday, January 12, 2006

Countries to watch

The “countries to watch” do not have much in common with the "enemies of the Internet." The plight of a Chinese Internet user, who risks prison by mentioning human rights in an online forum, does not compare with the situation of a user in France or the United States. Yet many countries that have so far respected online freedom seem these days to want to control the Internet more. Their often laudable aims include fighting terrorism, paedophilia and Internet-based crime, but the measures sometimes threaten freedom of expression.

Countries to watch (in alphabetical order)
- Bahrain
Except for pornographic sites, Bahrain does not censor the Internet much. But it has unfortunately begun to regulate it in ways that endanger freedom of expression. The government said in April 2004 that all online publications, including forums and blogs, must be officially registered. Loud protests led to suspension of the measure but it is still on the books. Three editors of a forum were held for nearly two weeks in March 2005 for allowing “defamation” of the king to be posted.
- Egypt
The government has taken steps since 2001 to control online material. Though censorship is minor, some criticism of the government is not welcome. The government seems unsure what to do about the explosion of blogs, being more used to pressuring the traditional media. A blogger was arrested for the first time in late October 2005 because of the content of his blog.
- European Union
The EU is responsible for regulating the Internet and rulings often apply to member-states. A European directive on 8 June 2000 about e-commerce proved a threat to freedom of expression, by making ISPs responsible for the content of websites they host and requiring them to block any page they consider illegal when informed of its existence. This creates a private system of justice, where the ISP is called on to decide what is illegal or not. Technicians thus do the job of a judge. The EU is now studying a proposal to oblige ISPs to retain records of customers’ online activity. The proposal could limit Internet users’ right to privacy.
- Kazakhstan
The media here, including the Internet, are under official pressure and control of online publications has become a key issue because many government scandals have been exposed on websites. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime added new sites to its blacklist in January 2005, including that of a democratic opposition party. In October, an opposition site was forced to give up its national domain name (.kz) after officially-inspired legal action.
- Malaysia
Government intimidation of online journalists and bloggers has increased in the past three years, notably of Malaysiakini, the country’s only independent online daily whose journalists have been threatened and its premises searched. Summonses and questioning of bloggers has been stepped up recently, leading to self-censorship that harms democracy.
- Singapore
The government does not filter the Internet much but is good at intimidating users and bloggers and website editors have very little room for manoeuvre. A blogger who criticised the country’s university system was forced to shut down his blog in May 2005 after official pressure.
- South Korea
The country is the fourth most-wired country in the world but it excessively filters the Internet, blocking mainly pornographic sites but also publications that supposedly “disturb public order,” including pro-North Korean sites. The government is very sensitive to political opinions expressed online and punishes Internet users they consider go too far. Two users were briefly detained and then fined in 2004 for posting pictures online making fun of opposition figures.
- Thailand
The government filters the Internet as part of its fight against pornography and has used it to extend censorship well beyond this. The method employed is also sly, since when a user tries to access a banned site, a message comes back saying “bad gateway,” instead of the usual “access refused” or “site not found.” In June 2005, the websites of two community radio stations very critical of the government were shut down after it pressed their ISP to do so.
- United States
US policy towards the Internet is important because it is the country where the Internet began. But its laws about interception of online traffic do not provide enough privacy guarantees for users. Leading US Internet firms such as Yahoo !, Cisco Systems and Microsoft are also working with censorship authorities in China, thus throwing doubt on the US commitment to freedom of expression. The United States, home of the First Amendment, the Internet and blogs, should be a model for respecting the rights of Internet users.
- Zimbabwe
The local media says the government is about to take delivery of Chinese equipment and technology to spy on the Internet. The state telecoms monopoly TelOne asked ISPs in June 2004 to sign contracts allowing it to monitor e-mail traffic and requiring them to take steps to stop illegal material being posted. Since political opposition seems to be regarded as illegal by President Robert Mugabe, this is bad news for the country’s Internet users.

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