Today marks the “World Day Against Cyber Censorship” – an event intended to raise awareness in support of an Internet accessible to all, without restrictions.
The initiative was first started by Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International in 2008. To mark the day, Reporters Without Borders has published its annual Enemies of the Internet report.
This year, Bahrain and Belarus have been moved from “under surveillance” to “enemies”, while Libya and Venezuela had been dropped from the list of countries “under surveillance” and India and Kazakhstan have been added to it.
Reflecting on the past year, Reporters Without Borders says: “Supposedly democratic countries continued to set a bad example by yielding to the temptation to prioritise security over other concerns and by adopting disproportionate measures to protect copyright. Internet users in 'free' countries have learned to react in order to protect what they have won.
“Some governments stepped up pressure on technical service providers to act as Internet cops. Companies specialising in online surveillance are becoming the new mercenaries in an online arms race. Hactivists are providing technical expertise to netizens trapped by a repressive regime's apparatus. Diplomats are getting involved. More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.”
Bahrain and Belarus join the list of “Enemies of the Internet” that includes countries deemed guilty of restricting Internet freedom the most such as Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
“They combine often drastic content filtering with access restrictions, tracking of cyber-dissidents and online propaganda,” says the report. The countries on the 'under surveillance' list include Australia, Egypt, France, Russia, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
The awareness day is supported by Google and to mark the occasion, the search giant has reiterated its position on online censorship. Senior VP of global communications and public policy for Google, Rachel Whetstone, says: “At Google, we have a bias in favour of free expression – not just because it's a key tenet of free societies, but also because more information generally means more choice, more power, more economic opportunity and more freedom for people.”
Whetstone, however, notes that Google recognises there are limits to freedom of expression. “In some areas it's obvious where to draw the line. For example, we have an all-product ban on child pornography. But in other areas, like extremism, it gets complicated because our products are available in numerous countries with widely varying laws and cultures.”
Whetstone also explains that Google will remove content that violates its guidelines or breaks the law in specific regions. “Earlier this year, for example, we removed a number of specific Web pages from Google properties in India after a court ruled that they violated Indian law.”
Whetstone emphasises that dealing with controversial content is not simple. “It's why we always start from the principle that more information is better, and why we've worked hard to be transparent about the removals we make.”
Later today, Reporters Without Borders will announce the 2012 winner of the Google-sponsored “Netizen Prize” for a blogger, online journalist or cyber-dissident who has helped to promote freedom of expression on the Internet.
Last year, the prize was awarded to Tunisian group blogging site Nawaat.org for its coverage of the Tunisian protests during the national media blackout.