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Let’s not forget 10 September 2001

The rise of terrorism has shaken the world and had a direct impact on the Internet. Democratic countries have chipped away at the liberties of their citizens the better to protect them. Monitoring of e-mail messages, repressive laws and censorship of websites have increased over the past three years in countries that normally respect freedom of expression. Supposedly temporary measures taken by Western governments in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks are still in force today and have even been strengthened.

Authoritarian regimes have also taken advantage of the focus on fighting terrorism to tighten their grip on the Internet. At a time when bomb attacks are striking at the heart of Western countries, the plight of the Internet in places like the Maldives and Tunisia don’t seem very important. A dictator just needs to boast he’s fighting terrorism and the eyes of the international community stop seeing his arrests of cyber-dissidents and censorship of websites.

Everyone talks about 11 September 2001, the fateful day we were all swept up by a threat which spared nobody, not ever the all-powerful United States. But we should remember the Internet as it was before that day to realise how far the rights of its users have been eroded by the war on terrorism.

On 10 September 2001, the Internet was still a place of hopes and dreams that was going to give everyone access to impartial information and undermine dictatorships. A few days later, it had became a lawless place where Al-Qaeda had managed to plan and coordinate its attacks. The Internet began to frighten people. The 10 September was the last day of a golden age of free online expression. Since then, Big Brother has loomed ever closer.

Democratic countries knock down the safety barriers

The Internet confronts all countries - France, South Africa, India, the United States - with the same problems. They all have to fight the growth of child-porn websites, work together to dismantle terrorist networks, combat cybercrime and protect their cultural industries against piracy. Free expression and the rights of webmasters have been the losers in this battle of security and economics.

Laws allowing the authorities to spy on Internet users have sprouted everywhere. The United States Congress passed the Patriot Act in October 2001 and most other Western countries hastily followed suit. France adopted a Law on Everyday Security (LSQ) a month later. These laws aimed to make it easier for police to find out personal data about Internet users. Personal e-mail and Web-surfing are no longer very protected against breaches of confidentiality.

Censorship is growing, often without public protest or interest, even in countries that usually respect freedom of expression. In France, it wasn’t until the Law on the Digital Economy (LEN) was finally passed that people realised the Internet had been devalued and was now open to arbitrary censorship. Nobody in Russia objected when the authorities blocked access to dozens of Chechen discussion groups. Hardly anyone protested when the Indian government too barred access to discussion forums. Internet watchdogs are still a long way from having enough power to stop the governments of large countries in their tracks.

Democracies are mired in complex legal problems posed by the Internet. The big question in the next few years will be how to apply national laws to the Internet, which by nature has no boundaries. Canadian and Australian judges have already given a dangerous response, despite their good intentions, by agreeing to handle cases about defamation posted on the Internet, on grounds that such material can be accessed from their countries. But in trying to protect citizens, they have stepped in a nest of vipers. Webmasters can now be prosecuted in countries where they do not live, are not citizens of and which their websites are not aimed at.

Even worse, in France, the government has just made ISPs responsible forever for material they allow to be posted instead of the limit of three months that applies to the rest of the media. So they can now be sued for something written 15 years earlier. Journalists or webmasters responsible for all time and everywhere in the world for what they post isn’t the fantasy of an eccentric dictator. It’s where some Western judges and governments are heading.

A solution could and should come from international bodies. The United Nations has taken up the issue and is seeking new ways to expand the Internet at the same time as regulating it. Unfortunately the UN’s first move was to organise a two-stage World Summit on the Information Society, first in Geneva and then in Tunis in 2005. Didn’t the UN know that the regime of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali harshly represses Internet users ? This shows there is little hope of the United Nations and the dictatorships among its members defending free expression on the Internet.

Dictatorships gag the Internet

As democracies steadily slide towards monitoring the Internet, dictatorships are tightening their grip on it. The situation has worsened in the past three years and today more than 70 cyber-dissidents are in prison and censorship is increasingly effective.

The Internet clearly alarms dictatorships. Each Internet user is a potential editor so it seems hard to monitor the flow of material in cyberspace. One solution is to put it out of reach of the vast majority of people, as in Cuba. But Cuba and other countries that do this, such as North Korea and Burma, have trouble with economic development, which these days requires access to new information technology.

So some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Singapore, have adopted the more sophisticated and costly solution of the Chinese authorities, who have set up a huge technological apparatus to monitor Internet messages, censor websites they do not like and hunt down cyber-dissidents. But the government also uses the Internet to spread its own propaganda.
All authoritarian regimes use the same devices to control the Internet. First they install filters against "subversive" material. The champions in this are Saudi Arabia and China, which block thousands of online publications. Both impose very broad censorship - of pornographic sites, independent magazines, human rights material and webpages about banned religious movements. Then they install software to read e-mail messages by spotting keywords that are "counter-revolutionary" or "undermine state security" and set up a cyberpolice to track down dissidents.

China, with 62 cyber-dissidents in jail, is by far the world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents, followed by Vietnam (7), the Maldives (3) and Syria (2). Just for expressing themselves on websites or discussion forums, they are serving sentences of up to 15 years.

Repressive governments are also increasingly using computer hackers, who create viruses and other software to block access to "undesirable" publications.
Campaigners for free expression have little defence against this technological and legal arsenal. But Internet users are constantly looking for new ways to beat censorship. They use proxy websites to reach banned sites, use software to make themselves invisible to cyberpolice and try to protect the confidentiality of their e-mail. They often get help from relatives or compatriots abroad who are the most secure and reliable self-defence network.

They also get backing from international organisations, which can also supply them with technology to get past government filters. But the combat seems an unequal one. For example, it is becoming more and more difficult for Internet users in China to fight the surveillance systems set up by the government (with the help of US companies) to stifle the Internet.

Internet laws are being drafted all over the world, mostly unnoticed by the media and the public. The fight against terrorism may be a priority but it cannot be waged at the expense of basic principles of democracy, including the right to use the Internet freely. Civil society, and especially Reporters Without Borders, will also continue to campaign so people do not forget the situation as it was on 10 September 2001.

Julien Pain
Internet Freedom editor, Reporters Without Borders

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Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

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