Internet freedom under threat as security concerns raise surveillance cases [Business Daily (Kenya)]
(Business Daily (Kenya) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Only a few months ago Edward Snowden roamed freely in his motherland with no attention from the public or authorities. Today he is a fugitive of the law, wanted by the world's largest democracy, though not for links to terror groups or association with extremists.
Mid this year, Snowden, a computer analyst who had once worked with the US' National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) leaked information to the press about secret mass surveillance programmes being carried out by the American government on both the Internet and over phones.
Snowden is the latest epitome of the threat to freedom of expression and association, especially on the Internet. He represents a large number of people wanted by governments for being too critical or publishing 'falsehoods'.
Where does one draw the line between mass surveillance and invasion of privacy? What criteria do governments use to determine what constitutes a threat to national security?
A report released last week by an international advocacy group, Freedom House, has noted with concern the decline in Internet freedom over the last year.
The report ranked Iceland as the country with the greatest Internet freedom globally while Iran was ranked as having the least freedom. Deterioration was also observed in a number of democracies as a result of struggles to balance freedom of expression with security.
The Freedom on the Net 2013 report listed 10 ways in which access to content was hampered, including increased surveillance by countries.
The survey made a comprehensive study on the changing environment in 60 countries, 34 of which showed a negative trajectory in Internet freedom since May 2012.
In these counties the governments increased surveillance and restricted the content that people could access on various websites.
"Over the past year, the global number of censored websites has increased, while Internet users in various countries have been arrested, tortured and killed over the information they posted online," the report said.
The revelation of increased surveillance in America for instance led to a significant decline in the country's Internet freedom.
"A series of leaks by former US contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was storing the personal communications metadata of Americans such as the e-mail addresses or phone numbers on each end, and the date and time of the communication; and mining them for leads in antiterrorism investigations," the report said.
In India, which registered the highest decline in Net freedom, the government blocked access to various websites that were deemed to have religious inflammatory content and arrested several people for their use of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
China adopted more elaborate technological apparatus for systemic Internet censorship, increasing the number of arrests made to deter free expression.
Authorities in 29 countries evaluated and blocked certain types of political and social content while others completely blocked social media and communication applications like Twitter Facebook, You Tube and Skype.
"Instead of blocking objectionable websites, many governments opt to contact the content hosts or social-media sites and request that the content be taken down. While takedown notices can be a legitimate means of dealing with illegal content when the right safeguards are in place, many governments and private actors are abusing the practice by threatening legal action and forcing the removal of material without a proper court order," the report said.
With the increased use of social media, more governments are introducing new laws or amending existing ones to regulate speech and behaviour on cyberspace.
The advocacy group lamented that many counties used legitimate concerns like cybercrime and online identity theft to introduce legal measures that criminalise critical speech.
Internet service providers and webhosting companies in 22 countries were also held legally liable for the content posted by their users prompting them to sensor any unfavourable content. Those who failed to comply with self-censorship were automatically shut down.
In parts of China, India and Venezuela for instance, Internet and mobile services were temporarily suspended during political events and moments of social unrest.
Bloggers, hackers and analysts were also hired to manipulate online discussions by spreading propaganda and discrediting government critics while defending unpopular policies.
The restricted Internet freedom in most countries surveyed directly reflected the media freedom, though some countries whose Internet use remained generally unmonitored had a partly free Press.
Of the 14 African countries included in the sample, only Kenya and South Africa were considered to have complete Internet freedom.
Countries that were ranked as partly free include Angola, Egypt, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. The only two countries found to not be free were Ethiopia and Sudan, mainly due to the blocking of various social media and other communication applications.
Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt were listed among those that had retrogressed in open access of Internet content.
Last year authorities in Egypt repeatedly throttled mobile Internet service in the areas around political protests, preventing activists from communicating through social networks and VoIP services.
Before the military take over, administrators of antigovernment and anti-Muslim Brotherhood Facebook groups were targeted in cases of extralegal abductions and killings.
Through social media, anti-Morsy campaigners were able to organise themselves and hold protests for days on end demanding for the president's resignation.
Non-state actors in Libya continued to add to the sense of insecurity in the online media environment. Militia groups were reported to abduct a social media activist and threaten a British journalist into leaving the country.
While Internet access was on the rise in Nigeria, the government, according to the report, contracted a foreign company to help monitor Internet communication and even budgeted for the purchase of surveillance systems.
The Protection of State Information Bill passed by the South African parliament is listed as one of the limiting factors to both online and media freedom as it will criminalise reporting on classified State information and intentional access of leaked information online.
But despite the setbacks, the report adds that there has been growing activism globally against invasion of privacy and limiting access to content.
"Citizens' groups are able to more rapidly disseminate information about negative proposals and put pressure on the authorities. In addition, ICTs have started to play an important role in advocacy for positive change on other policy topics, from corruption to women's rights, enabling activists and citizens to more effectively organise, lobby and hold their governments accountable," the report said.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in their latest report on broadband access globally note that while technological innovation has increased drastically over the years Internet freedom has not grown proportionately.
In many countries, the controls and regulations that have been applied do not conform to international standards for justifiable limits on freedom of expression.
"Too often, they are not transparent, not intended for legitimate purposes, and not proportional to the types of speech they seek to limit," the ITU report says.
More and more countries around the world are installing laws that authorise content control through filtering with issues of issues of terrorism, copyright infringement, hate speech, defamation, privacy protection and child protection being used as the basis to limit freedom.
"Internet freedom is complex. A balance must be found between sometimes conflicting imperatives, including freedom of expression, rights to dignity and reputation, rights to safety, intellectual property rights, respect for privacy, freedom of association and belief, among others," says ITU.
The last year saw an emergence of two trends of content filtering. In some cases it was done in order to place a government in a position to protect other fundamental rights while in others it was done to impose a particular political or moral regime with the least resistance.
Despite the increasing constraints for Internet users, ITU estimates that by the end of the year about 2.7 billion people will be online.
This places the global Internet penetration rate at 39 per cent, with Internet penetration in the developing countries expected to reach 31 per cent by December. This means that four in every ten households in the world will be connected to the Internet though a huge disparity exists between developed and developing countries.
"Globally, 41 per cent of all households will be connected to the Internet by end 2013.In the developing world, 28 per cent of households have Internet access, compared with 78 per cent of all households in the developed world. Of the 1.1 billion households still not connected to the Internet, 90 per cent are in the developing world," the report says.
In Kenya for instance, ITU says that 11.5 per cent of the households in the country had access to Internet in 2012 with three of every ten people using it.
It is expected that the number of mobile broad band subscriptions around the world will grow to 2.1 billion meaning that of the 6.8 billion mobile phones, people would be able to access Internet on a third of the devices.
Based on Internet usage data as a proxy indicator, ITU estimates that by December this year, some 1.3 billion Internet users will be women compared with 1.5 billion men online, equivalent to a global Internet gender gap of 200 million.
This gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16 per cent fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only two per cent fewer women than men in the developed world.
In China, 75 per cent of all Internet users now access the Internet via a mobile device, though the country is ranked among those with the least Internet freedom.
"Assuming that people can afford broadband when it costs less than five per cent of their annual income, fixed broadband access is unaffordable for 3.9 billion people, and mobile broadband unaffordable for over 2.6 billion people around the world," the report says.
A large percentage of the global population is still lacking in ICT skills and a section of those with necessary skills do not consider Internet access a priority when most of their households lack basic commodities like food, water and electricity.
The report proposes that policymakers address affordability challenges for broadband services by regular monitoring, regulation, potential subsidies, increased competition and tiered services.
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