From China to Iran, government Internet censorship has become increasingly more prevalent, posing numerous concerns to advocates of cyber freedom. As we previously reported, there are now 40 governments that censor the Internet, up from only four in 2002. Yet one of the biggest promoters of Internet freedom—the United States—may in fact be enabling these restrictive governments in censoring and monitoring their citizens, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Censorship and surveillance require extensive software and hardware, many of which are actually created by US and other Western companies and sold to countries with restrictive internet policies, Foreign Policy said.
According to The Atlantic, such technologies can easily be used against citizen journalists in countries with little press freedom, preventing the dissemination of valuable data.
“Intelligence agencies throughout the Middle East can today scan, catalogue, and read virtually every email in their country,” the article said. “These technologies turn activists' phones against them, allowing governments to listen in on phone calls, read text messages, even scan cell networks and pinpoint callers with voice recognition. They allow intelligence agents to monitor movements of activists via a GPS locator updated every fifteen seconds. And by tricking users into installing malware on their devices—as is currently happening in Syria—government agents can remotely turn on a laptop webcam or a cell phone microphone without its user knowing.”
American tech companies not only sell their surveillance products to dictatorships but also to other democratic governments trying to confront Internet-related crimes such as child pornography and intellectual property theft, Foreign Policy said. Some of the technology can be seen as “dual-use” for its ability to both protect and censor, the article said.
One of their biggest customers? The US itself, the article said.
According to the ACLU blog, US law enforcement records across the country were just released that show that many agencies track cell phones of citizens without first obtaining warrants.
To counter the lack of oversight of tech corporations abroad, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights passed the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), Foreign Policy said. The legislation would create a list of “Internet-restricting countries,” require companies on the US Stock Exchange to report their practices for protecting Internet freedom and privacy rights in those countries and prohibit the sale of censorship and surveillance technology to those countries, the article said.
At a February conference in Paris titled “The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World,” organized by WPFC and UNESCO, experts examined the difficulties in regulating the internet, citing WikiLeaks and other scandals as motivation for governments to create over-restrictive regulations, as we previously reported.
Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, said at the conference, “We need to address how technologies should be governed to support people's rights around the world. And regarding SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, democracies in the West need to be warned that regulating the Internet needs to be done properly.”
Clearly, Internet regulations are complex and must be approached with caution. What seems much more transparent, however, is the obligation of the US and other Western nations to limit the sale of censorship and surveillance devices to nations that ignore the privacy rights of their citizens. With the development of nuanced legislation, and increased public attention to these issues, perhaps Western technology companies can begin untangling themselves from the governments which their home legislators denounce.
*Photograph found through Flickr's Creative Commons License, credited to Mediajon