A study has found that 25 out of 41 countries surveyed regularly block or filter Internet content – including gay and lesbian sites – indicating a global trend towards Internet censorship
This according to the first year of a global survey of Internet filtering techniques by governments released by the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership among groups at four leading universities: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Toronto.
“Online censorship is growing in scale, scope, and sophistication around the world,” said John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “The regulation of the Internet has continued to grow over time – not surprising, given the importance of the medium. As Internet censorship and surveillance grow, there’s reason to worry about the implications of these trends for human rights, political activism, and economic development around the world.”
According to the study, censorship is expanding into new countries and becoming more sophisticated over time. Countries are not only blocking Web sites, such as pages that show pornographic pictures, information about human rights, or YouTube but also applications, such as Skype and Google Maps.
The survey uncovers government activity in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa that denies citizens access to information – often about politics, sexuality, culture, or religion – that the governments deem too sensitive.
The study finds three primary rationales for filtering: politics and power, leading to filtering of political opposition groups (common in many of the countries surveyed); social norms, leading to filtering of subjects deemed offensive to social norms such as pornography, gay and lesbian content and gambling (also common in many of the countries surveyed); and security concerns, leading to the filtering of sites that could endanger national security, such as websites of separatist and radical groups.
Among the findings of ONI’s survey are:
- 25 out of 41 countries surveyed showed evidence of filtering;
- Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia not only filter a wide range of topics, but also block a large amount of content related to those topics;
- South Korea’s filtering efforts are very narrow in scope, but heavily censor one topic, North Korea;
- Countries engaged in substantial politically-motivated filtering include: Burma, China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam;
- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Tunisia, and Yemen engage in substantial social content filtering;
- Burma, China, Iran, Pakistan and South Korea have the most encompassing national security filtering, targeting the websites related to border disputes, separatists, and extremists;
- No evidence of filtering was found in fourteen countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, West Bank and Gaza, Malaysia, Nepal, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, many of which one might expect to find Internet filtering.
“These tests are the first comprehensive global assessment of Internet filtering practices,” said Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University.
“Previously, Internet filtering generally has been described only by rumour and anecdote. We’ve confirmed that government-filtering is taking place in dozens of places around the world. It is becoming more pervasive and more subtle over time, often disguised as network errors. An essence of the rule of law is that citizens know when their governments are choosing to censor what they see, hear, and say. Otherwise they don’t know what they don’t know,” he said.