Repression Goes Digital

The Internet has become a chokepoint in the struggle for a free press
March 30, 2010

In what has been dubbed “The Twitter Revolution,” citizens in Tehran since June have been documenting violence in the street and using social media to disseminate information to fellow protesters as well as an eager audience around the world. Their efforts bolster the idea that the Internet cannot be controlled, and that even the most repressive and determined government cannot stop the flow of information.

This is an appealing and exciting notion, one touted by many Iran watchers, but it ignores the fuller and more ominous reality of the cat and mouse game unfolding between journalists–professional and amateur–and those repressive regimes in Iran and elsewhere. Yes, Twitter and e-mail have made it possible to get fragmented bits of information out of Iran, but the hard-line government in Tehran may be winning the information war by forcing foreign correspondents out of the country or keeping them in their bureaus, shutting down reformist newspapers, rounding up critical bloggers and journalists, and, on occasion, disabling the Internet and cell service entirely. 

Beyond that, the situation in Iran points to serious vulnerabilities in the global information environment that have broad implications for journalism and press freedom: as more and more media outlets converge online, the Internet is becoming an information chokepoint that governments are seeking to control.

Pulling the plug on the Internet is an extreme measure, although Iran has done it for brief periods and China essentially shut down the Internet for months in Xinjiang province to prevent coverage of the unrest there. But governments from Tunisia to Vietnam are using monitors, filters, firewalls, and pressure on service providers to gain control of the Internet and stem the flow of information. In recent examples, government hackers have taken down critical Web sites in Russia and Tunisia. Governments are also jailing critical bloggers, who are vulnerable because, unlike professional journalists, they generally lack institutional backing.

In seeking to stem the flow of information online, governments have exploited vulnerabilities at each step in the journalism process: the gathering, dissemination, and consumption of news.

Before the Internet, news gatherers were mostly professional journalists. Over decades, governments around the world developed refined if imperfect strategies to control their activities, from denying visas and accreditation to the threat of prison sentences and even murder. But the Web changed the equation, since nearly everyone now has the capacity to gather and disseminate information using e-mail, the Web, social networking platforms, and, increasingly, SMS networks like Twitter. The sheer number of potential news gatherers presents new challenges to governments trying to stop information at its source. Iranian security forces, for instance, have made haphazard efforts to physically attack protesters who are using cell phones to document abuses. They are also attempting to use technology to suppress news gathering. According to media reports, Nokia Siemens, a Finnish-German joint venture, has sold Iran technology that allows authorities to monitor any communications across a network, including voice calls, text messaging, instant messages, and Web traffic. (The company says it provided only “Lawful Intercept capability solely for the monitoring of local voice calls in Iran.”) The Iranian government also set up a Web site asking people to help identify photos of protesters and turn them in.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

If repressive governments cannot effectively control the information gatherers, they must either prevent them from disseminating the information or stop news consumers from accessing it. In both areas, governments have had surprising success. Their job is made easier by the fact that more and more information, whether collected by professional journalists or average citizens, is disseminated through the Web.

The simplest way to stop the dissemination of information or ideas is to limit access to the Internet or cellular networks. This is a strategy employed in some of the world’s most repressive countries, such as Burma and Cuba. By making it difficult for average citizens to get online, these governments inhibit the rise of mass citizen journalism, and make it easy to target the individuals who defy the government.

Burma, which was named the world’s worst place to be a blogger in a 2009 survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), broadly restricts Internet access, forcing people to access the Web through cyber cafés, which are carefully monitored. Bloggers caught disseminating damaging information have been severely punished. The comedian Muang Thura, for instance (better known as Zarganar, or “tweezers”), is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for distributing video of relief workers assisting the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

In Cuba, Internet access is officially restricted to government officials and members of the Communist Party, but a handful of independent bloggers operate in the country, using Internet cafés to access the Web. For the most part, Cuban authorities tolerate this because the bloggers don’t directly challenge the government and because their work is generally available only outside the island.

Blocking or severely limiting access to the Web, however, comes with a high economic and political cost. Governments that don’t let their citizens online are among the world’s most repressive; increasingly, a country cannot be part of the global economy without an information-based society. Countries like China and Iran take a more sophisticated approach, allowing broad access to the Internet but limiting the dissemination of certain kinds of critical content. This requires manpower and technology. In China, for example, an army of tens of thousands of Internet monitors scrutinizes the Web and removes “objectionable” content. The government blocks individual Web sites and key-word searches, monitors the use of certain terms (“Falun Gong,” “Tiananmen Square”), and arrests those who post commentary critical of the regime. In one recent case, the dissident poet Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on Christmas Day to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

But China also understands that broad Web and cellular access–China has more online users than any other country–is necessary for global business. Most Chinese citizens operate happily inside a “walled garden,” where they are permitted to peruse a variety of information and even post certain kinds of critical comments. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert who is writing a book on the subject, most people in China lack the technical means or the even the interest to access blocked news sites, like the BBC Chinese service or YouTube. China is also putting pressure on the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), requiring them to serve as surrogate censors.

Iranians, too, have had broad access to the Web, a technology that has been embraced by the country’s conservative leadership, many of whom host blogs and Twitter. But Iran’s Internet connection to the world is in the hands of Telecommunications Company of Iran, a company in which a consortium associated with the Revolutionary Guards recently bought a 50 percent stake. Cyrus Farivar, a San Francisco-based tech journalist and Iran expert, calls control of the Internet “the biggest weapon in the government’s arsenal.” The number of international gateways that allow Internet traffic to enter or exit Iran is in the “single digits,” according to Farivar.

Restrictions of online content are not limited to repressive countries. Germany, for example, bans Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis and requires Internet companies like Google and Yahoo to comply with government regulations. In India, according to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Google has been forced to remove or censor content that could offend religious minorities or powerful political figures. The big fear of press-freedom advocates is creeping censorship under the guise of law enforcement or anti-pornography legislation.

Governments can also attack the third part of the information assembly line, blocking people from accessing certain kinds of information on the Web. Many repressive governments–including Iran, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and China–use filters to block critical Web sites, a process known as blacklisting. Whitelisting, which is also widely practiced, refers to authorizing approved Web sites and blocking the rest. Increasingly, governments also require Internet café owners to police the sites that their clients visit; some have installed software that allows the government to do this remotely.

Press freedom groups like CPJ have traditionally focused their attention on defending news gatherers. These strategies remain crucial, but in order to more effectively defend press freedom in the new global information environment we need to devote more resources to defending the Internet itself. CPJ, for example, is adding a full-time Internet advocacy coordinator in 2010 to do just that. Our goal is to get media organizations to understand that they have an enormous stake in the outcome.

To be effective, journalists, media organizations, and press-freedom groups need to form alliances with the ISPs and tech companies that maintain the Internet’s infrastructure. These companies are coming under tremendous pressure from repressive governments to enforce government censorship. Too often they have complied and have been justly criticized for doing so.

That is why Google’s recent stand in China is so important. Refusing to comply with Chinese government censorship “was a statement that doing the moral and ethical thing is good for business,” says Rebecca MacKinnon. “When your business is transmitting, publishing, amplifying, and hosting the most intimate details of people’s lives and their most sensitive political conversations, then your users have to trust that you’re not going to be tossing information to the nearest dictator.”

Good for business, but also good for journalism. However, these kinds of efforts will only be effective if companies agree to abide by minimum standards that prevent competitors from exploiting another’s principled position. A new organization called the Global Network Initiative was set up to do just that. The organization, which expects to hire an executive director in the next few months, is made up of leading Internet companies–Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft–along with human rights organizations and socially responsible investors. Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director, represents us on the initiative’s board.

A united front has proved effective, as was shown last summer when international tech companies forced the Chinese government to back away from its plan to require the installation of filtering software called Green Dam/Youth Escort in every computer sold in China.

Governments, too, have a role to play in defending press freedom online. “We stand for a single Internet, where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a January speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Turning that lofty rhetoric into effective policy will be a major challenge.

The goal of everyone fighting for press freedom on the Internet is to bring together journalists, ISPs, tech and media companies, freedom of expression and human rights groups, and even supportive governments in a broad international coalition to preserve and strengthen Internet freedom and push back against countries that seek to restrict it. The future of free journalism may depend on the success of this coalition.

Technology will play a role, but it’s only one tool. Equally important is consistent public pressure on governments that employ censorship. The perception that dissident voices rather than repressive governments have benefited more from the advent of the Internet is probably correct–but only for the moment. As MacKinnon notes, “The Internet is an extension of human activity, and secret police and criminals have moved into cyberspace along with the wonderful democracy activists we all like.”

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.