Internet Enemies
Fig. 1. Courtesy of Reporters Sans Frontieres, 2012.

Reporters Without Borders releases its "Internet Enemies Report 2012", a 72-page report focused on online freedom of expression and cyber censorship. Countries listed as "Internet Enemies" in 2012 are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Countries “Under Surveillance” are Australia, Egypt, Eritrea, France, India, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, while Libya and Venezuela had been dropped from the list.

The Internet Enemies Report 2012 describes current trends in the cyberspace:

The revolution of microblogs and opinion aggregators and the faster dissemination of news and information that results, combined with the growing use of mobile phones to livestream video, are all increasing the possibilities of freeing information from its straightjacket. The mixing of journalism and activism has been accentuated in extreme situations such as Syria, where ordinary citizens, appalled by the bloodshed, are systematically gathering information for dissemination abroad, especially by the international news media, so the outside world knows about the scale of the brutal crackdown taking place.

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Repressive regimes have learned the lesson. Keeping the media at bay, intimidating witnesses and blocking access to a few news websites are not enough to ensure the success of a news blackout. A much more effective way is to seal off the area concerned to prevent unwanted witness from entering and any digital content from leaving, and to cut off communications by blocking SMS messaging and by shutting down Internet access and mobile phone services in a temporary or targeted manner.

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Nonetheless, shutting down the Internet is a drastic solution that can create problems for the authorities and can hurt the economy. Slowing the Internet connection speed right down is more subtle but also effective as it makes it impossible to send or receive photos or videos. Iran is past master at this. Syria’s censors also play with the Internet connection speed, fluctuations being a good indicator of the level of repression in a given region.

Bahrain is an example of a news blackout succeeding thanks to an impressive combination of technical, judicial and physical censorship methods.

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As soon as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt got under way, most regimes that censor the Internet quickly reinforced online content filtering in a bid to head off any possibility of similar unrest spreading to their own countries. Some regimes have adopted filtering as standard tool of governance, one that strengthens their hold on power. Livestreaming sites and social networks are often the most affected.

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Internet content filtering is growing but Internet surveillance is growing even more. Censors prefer to monitor dissidents’ online activities and contacts rather than try to prevent them from going online. The police chief in the United Arab Emirates, for example, has acknowledged that the police monitor social networks.

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Syria’s cyber army is expert in the art of contaminating the Facebook walls of opponents and dissidents, often with the aim of discrediting them, and to drown out critical comments with a tide of praise for the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Twitter accounts have been created to exploit the #Syria hashtag, sending out hundreds of tweets with keywords that link to sports results or photos of the country.

The full report is available for PDF download here.

Related article on Digital Islam can be found here:

Reporters Without Borders' Internet Enemies Report 2011