The internet as the place where everyone can exchange unlimited information is on the way out. More and more countries are limiting access to the web. China has its ‘Great Firewall’, Iran is working on a national ‘halal internet’, Pakistan wants a centrally regulated blocking system and Western countries are curbing freedom in their battle against child pornography and copyright piracy. Will every country soon have its own intranet?
At the moment, almost every country is working on limiting internet freedom in some way. Recent research from the OpenNet Initiative conducted jointly with parties including Harvard University indicates that 47 percent of the world’s internet users don’t have full access to the information which is available online. About 30 percent of them live in a country which could be accused of far-reaching web censorship.
Censorship is not limited to repressive regimes. In the United States and Europe, internet freedom is under pressure from legislation targetting internet piracy. Australia, meanwhile, is working on imposing filters, mostly aimed against (child) pornography. United States internet activist Rebecca MacKinnon:
“Regimes which underestimated the power of the internet are trying to make up ground. They are trying to win back authority by controlling access to the internet, intimidation and developing their own technology. Whether or not they will succeed depends on the resistance put up by their populations – hopefully aided by software companies which should work in the interests of the user more often.”
For years, software firms have supplying databases of millions of ‘undesirable’ internet addresses to companies. Mostly these are gambling and pornography sites. If these databases are augmented with the details of political opponents, they become of interest to national governments. Saudi Arabia is a well-known client.
A potentially lucrative contract with the Pakistani government, however, was seen as going too far. Pakistan was looking for a partner which could supply a database of 50 million selected URLs. International NGOs called on the market’s major players to undertake publicly not to sign up to the deal. Activists called for a boycott of companies not willing to make such an undertaking. The approach was successful and Pakistan backed down. Its domestic internet providers will now have to work harder to block unwanted sites manually.
The regime in Havana has dealt with the problem by simply denying its citizens internet access. For the few Cubans who are online, the worldwide web is limited to sending and receiving e-mails. Only certain groups, such as bankers and academics, are allowed a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the wall – and the government keeps tabs on what they see.
Iran isn’t looking for technology abroad but is developing its own at home. The country is working on ‘halal internet’. A national internet based on Islamic principles and cordoned off from the rest of the world. Companies often have closed intranet networks and this would be a kind of national intranet. Without Western search machines, international e-mail and social media, but with stringent controls and employing the latest technology to enforce its isolation. It’s unclear when Iran’s Islamic internet system will come into operation. The Iranian government itself can’t do without contact with the outside world.
It’s also questionable whether or not the Iranians themselves would accept a new cordoned-off web. Proxy servers and VPN networks are used a great deal in Iran and people know what’s for sale. Nearly 40 percent of Iranian residents have access to the internet, the highest percentage in the region.
Iran will probably follow the example set by Myanmar, thinks Lucie Morillon, head of New Media at the Paris office of Reporters Without Borders. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is working on a system comprising three different internet providers: for the government, for the military and for its citizens.
China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is seen as the benchmark for repressive regimes. China has more internet users than any other country and blocks their access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It has developed various methods of enforcing this blockade.
Until recently, Chinese people were allowed to use pseudonyms online. Following a number of incidents, including persistent rumours online about a coup d’état, this has now been forbidden. All the censorship, though, seems to have little effect on the amount of dissatisfaction expressed online.
China’s citizens appear to be endlessly inventive when it comes to methods of getting round the filters, however up-to-date they are. Ruses include coming up with innocent sounding synonyms for controversial or forbidden words. Most of the work of Chinese internet watchdogs involves getting rid of undesirable websites and content.
The technicalities of creating national islands within the web are relatively simple and, at the moment, it's a development which doesn’t go unnoticed. However, more is needed to turn the tide than a United Nations report declaring that free access to the internet is a human right. Lucie Morillon again:
“The greatest danger is through diversification of the internet. If we’re not careful, it’ll become a place where people can only access small pieces of information which are different for everyone. Then you won’t be able to talk to each other.”