Report highlights extent of online freedom of speech restrictions

Freedom of Speech

A new report from the Chatham House think-tank and the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an independent think-tank founded by former BlackBerry Ltd co-chief Jim Balsillie has highlighted at least a dozen countries around the world who either have, or are considering, bringing in laws to restrict freedom of speech online.

The report has been released today at an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting in Cancun, Mexico, and draws attention to the actions being taken by some of the usual suspects such as China, Iran, and Pakistan, but also other countries where such actions are more unexpected such as Brazil, Malaysia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Bolivia.

Excuses for censorship

There are countless examples of legislation in the report, many of which are written in broad terms, which can be widely interpreted. Phrases used to describe online conversation that “disturb the public order” or “convey false statements” are broad enough that they can be used to attack almost anyone from political opposition to various minority groups.

It also highlights a number of countries which have taken steps to disconnect social media outlets altogether, often during sensitive periods of time such as elections.

In Pakistan, Bolivia, Brazil, and Kenya, legislation is still passing through their Parliaments to begin to censor online expression. But there seems to be little question that it will make it onto the statute books before too long. In Bolivia for example, the report highlights a comment from President Evo Morales who has said that there is a need in the country to “regulate the social networks.”

According to Leonardo Loza, the head of one of Bolivia’s powerful unions, and a strong supporter of the proposal, “It is aimed at educating and disciplining people, particularly young Bolivians, and fighting delinquency on social networks… Freedom of expression can’t be lying to the people or insulting citizens and politicians.”

Technology bypasses censorship

Needless to say free speech campaigns, and those who contributed to this report strongly disagree with this.

Reuters quote Richard Forno, the assistant director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Center for Cybersecurity, who said “this is the next evolution of political suppression… Technology facilitates freedom of expression, and politicians don’t like that.”

Michael Chertoff, a former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and co-author of the report concurs. “Free expression is one of the foundational elements of the internet,” he said. “It shouldn’t be protecting the political interests of the ruling party or something of that sort.”

Sadly, the trend of trying to restrict online freedom of speech seems to be a growing one. And this creates a dilemma for those big internet companies who don’t want to be associated with such censorship, and yet don’t want to miss out on what are some of the biggest markets in the world.

Of course, there are a variety of ways the individual user can get around such censorship. Using a VPN is probably the most obvious one, as this encrypts all of your online traffic, and reroutes it via a server often located outside the country you are logging on from. This allows users to get round any sites which might be blocked as well as making them pretty much anonymous while they are online.

Technology such as this renders such state censorship of the internet almost futile, but of course that doesn’t stop Government’s persisting with it. And reports such as this one are vital if the battle for online freedom of speech is going to be won.

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