Is Social Media Damaging To Government Control?

-Internet Libery Icon-March 12th was World Day Against Cyber Censorship, a campaign by Reporters without Borders intended to raise awareness of the power of the Internet to promote freedom of thought and speech. To mark this event, the international non-profit has released a list of “Enemies of the Internet“, holding nothing back in an attempt to reveal the regimes that most blatantly censor the Internet. Maintaining an unflinching interrogation of those governments that prevent their citizens from accessing the powerful social and informational tools available online is one way that Reporters without Borders is leading the fight for free access to the Internet around the world.

Social networks are some of the most celebrated vehicles for activism of the past several years. Twitter has been used to document the recent protests in Iran, Youtube hosts numerous videos of governmental violence and abuses of power, and Facebook is home to a variety of groups and networks dedicated to uncovering and sharing information about specific human rights abuses. In the hands of tech-savvy youth, social media has been a means of witnessing government violence and mobilizing against it. It is no wonder, therefore, that some of the most notoriously unfree governments are actively attempting to restrict Internet access and censor the free exchange of information it enables.

The report “Enemies of the Internet” points out that the problem of Internet censorship goes beyond silencing the voices of dissidents online – there are hundreds of cases each year of Internet users, often broadcasting the corruption or harsh violence of their governments, being jailed, harassed, placed under surveillance, and otherwise victimized. According to the report, there have been 120 bloggers, online journalists, or social media users jailed in the last year, with China’s 74 detainees in “netizen prison” topping the list.

The ten countries singled out for being the worst perpetrators of Internet censorship are Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. The governments of these countries have successfully maintained militaristic control over access to everything from Twitter, to “dissident” blogs, to unfiltered Google searches.

Perhaps the two regimes most criticized in the news for their Internet policies are China and Iran. The recent tension between China and Google over cyber attacks and the subsequent threat from the Internet giant to stop censoring its searches has brought China’s tight control over the Internet to the forefront of the mainstream media. However, less well known is the fact that China possesses the world’s most sophisticated censorship technology, which it uses to block URLs and keywords that are considered “subversive” – keywords include “democracy”, “human rights”, and “Tiananmen”. Using this technology, the Chinese government restricted searches this past July, the 20th anniversary of the bloody massacre in Tiananmen square. The Chinese search engine Baidu was reported as displaying the message, “The search does not comply with laws, regulations and policies” for any search of “July 4th” in Photos.

Iran, like China, as a sophisticated filtering technology that censors Internet searches and websites that include such keywords as “women” in Farsi, and “torture”. Since the July 2009 election and Twitter protest, most social networks in Iran, including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Orkut, have been continuously blocked. Connected to these outages is Iran’s seizing of cellphones and blocking of photo and video sharing sites like YouTube and Flikr. The regime claims social media is the tool of the opposition or is influenced by foreign interests in an attempt to justify its censorship.

However, social media is helping to overcome some of the censorship in China and Iran, even as authorities march to keep up with those accessing unrestricted sites via proxies and VPNs. The “Enemies of the Internet” report states that news about a fire at a Chinese state-owned TV network was first made available to the public via Twitter, even though government authorities had given orders to repress the event in the media. The report also points to the power of mobilizing users online, particularly through Twitter: when Twitter was shut down by governmental agencies in response to users trying to identify corrupt officials, they swarmed the Chinese Twitter copycat site at www.t.people.com.cn and forced it to shut down. And in Iran, the blogging youth are some of the most active in the world.

Governmental censorship of the Internet is particularly damaging to citizens who lack the freedom of speech that so many take for granted. Sites like Twitter and YouTube can be used as watchdogs, monitoring the actions of authoritarian governments, and if they are shut down, many human rights abuses will go undocumented. Reporters without Borders strives to report on government censorship of the Internet in the hopes that action can be taken to free netizens around the world from the shackles of oppressive authority and allow them the freedom of speech and information that every open society needs in order to thrive.