The Internet has already become the most popular tool for mass communication. Every year the number of people using Internet grows, but at the same time more and more governments implement online censorship in their countries. Nowadays there are about 40 countries that have web censorship; compared to 2002, when there were only four.
Protecting internet privacy is of crucial importance for users from different places. That’s why some people consider any form of government intrusion to be a violation of their rights. But others think that every freedom should have its limits and admit that some restrictions are reasonable, for example the prohibition of child pornography.
However, the toughest censorship usually is used in countries with repressive regimes such as China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Iran. The repressive governments use censorship to achieve their own latent goals, to prevent protests and to find people that disagree with their policies. Usually, web sites that can jeopardize the current regime are banned in these states.
There are a lot of countries where only a limited number of users have Internet access. We have already reported about the situation in Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Yemen and many other countries where people are not allowed to visit the majority of sites. Many users in these countries have to bypass restrictions with the help of the best VPN services available, that provide them with secure browsing and the guarantee of high-end web anonymity.
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The United Nations (UN) assume that Internet access is an inalienable human right and consider that to be disconnected from the web is a violation of human rights and international laws. A report of the UN Human Rights Council’s 17th session says that Internet gives people an opportunity to exploit a lot of human rights and that it favors the progress of humankind.
La Rue, a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, claimed that “the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders”. That’s why he considers an Internet cutoff to be unacceptable.
Internet restrictions are necessary and justifiable in such areas as child pornography, but in many cases governments use blocking or filtering mechanisms to achieve their own hidden agenda. According to the report , it should be an independent judicial authority or body who defines the scope of Internet censorship.
La Rue is deeply concerned that Internet users have only relative web anonymity, because governments can monitor and collect private information about them. This intervention violates people’s right to online privacy and smashes Internet security.
The report also incites governments to include trainings on Internet literacy in school curricula, because it can “help individuals learn how to protect themselves against harmful content, and explain the potential consequences of revealing private information on the Internet”.
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The Iranian government is going to impose a so-called national Internet aimed to substitute the global network. This new form of censorship can lead to the detachment of the Iranian cyberspace from the worldwide one. The government of Iran claims that the new national Internet will help to preserve Islamic moral standards and to cut down the consumers’ expenditure.
At the beginning, the national network will work together with Internet and some large companies will still have access to both of them, but gradually the Internet will be displaced. Ali Aghamohammadi, Head of Economic Affairs, has recently declared that national Internet will become "a genuine halal network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level". It means that the network will not violate Islamic laws.
Moreover, the reports of the local press say that Windows will be replaced with a new Iranian operating system. Iran is also going to create its own alternatives to popular websites and e-mail services; for example Ymail will substitute Gmail.
The current situation in the country causes alarm for many users, especially those who browse the Internet for business purposes every day. They think that to impose a national Internet can affect their current relationship with international partners. People are afraid that they will not be able to bypass the new form of censorship, even with the help of the best VPN services.
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China is famous for its tough internet censorship. In this country it is forbidden to access social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, to use Google services and to watch YouTube videos. There are some ways to bypass these restrictions and visit your favorite sites without limitations. To get a VPN is the most widespread. But, do users really need it?
It is a difficult question to answer. Some people consider that such restrictions are in violation of their rights. You can find this type of users on forums, asking for advice about the best VPN. They probably use their selected VPN service regularly to access blocked sites. For them it is essential to communicate with their friends and relatives using Facebook and to exchange commercial correspondence with the help of Gmail. That’s why these users need VPN services, because they can unblock websites that have been censored by the government and provide with secure access to Internet.
On the other hand, there is the opinion that Chinese users can manage without restricted sites because China has its own counterparts. And this point of view insists that only foreigners staying in China cannot live without access to the blocked American-based websites. Native users can follow China-based websites of the same type instead of foreign ones. For example, to upload their videos, they can use Chinese websites like v.sina.com.cn, tudou.com and youku.com that are not as fast, but at least are not censored. Is it a a negative phenomenon – prohibiting foreign media because they promote ideas that are alien to the centuries-old culture, but having local replacements with the same ideology?
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The Indian government has recently toughened the Internet censorship in the country. The new rules are an update of the IT Act 2000. It regulates the content of online posts. Indian officials claim that the new measures are in tune with international laws and do not violate users’ rights.
According to the regulations, Indian users are not allowed to post information which is "grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, racially or ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatsoever".
The Department of Information Technology can block websites that display content of the type mentioned above. Any citizen can demand the blocking of content that they consider to be objectionable. The task of doing the "dirty job" will lie with the Internet service providers and websites that publish user-generated content.
Even though the Indian government is attempting to regulate the published content, it does not agree with web anonymity. The rules require that cyber cafes store data about their customers including their name, address, photo and browsing history, making it possible to find a person who has placed prohibited data on the Internet with the help of a public computer. The cyber cafe owners are obliged to keep a one-year log of all sites accessed by their users. The rules insist that "all the computers in the cyber cafe shall be equipped with safety/filtering software, in order to avoid access to websites that contain pornography, obscenity, terrorism and other objectionable material."
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The Chinese government is going to blacklist universities and corporations for using VPN connections to access restricted websites. The Guardian reported that the Chinese government cracked down on VPNs and closed a loophole that allowed users to bypass their Internet censorship.
The users are complaining that since May 6th it has become very difficult to access sites such as Google and MSN. Moreover, Apple's app store has also been blocked. Internet connections from China Telecom and China Unicom have become unstable, which makes using VPN services difficult.
Universities and corporate connections are suffering, due to the new difficulties, more than broadband connections. The Public Security Bureau has already blacklisted the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that is now asking people to avoid using "circumvention tools to access illegal content".
Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, doesn’t approve of the Great Firewall. She also claimed that the US would assign $19m to fight against Internet censorship in China and other authoritarian states. This funding will be part of the sum that the US Congress has already allocated to combat against the Chinese Firewall.
The new US Internet censorship bill will soon be released. It’s called the PROTECT IP Act, that stands for "Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property". The new bill gives a more accurate definition of sites “dedicated to unlawful activities” and gives more ways of restricting access to them.
COICA suggested using a DNS blocking system to limit access to foreign "rogue sites". It also asked that credit card companies and advertising networks stop working with such sites. Also, according to the PROTECT IP Act, search engines will not be allowed to show search results from seized domain names. The bill reads that this decision "responds to the concerns raised that search engines are part of the ecosystem that directs Internet user traffic and, therefore, should be part of the solution."
But search engines, credit card companies and advertising networks will be protected by the law if they “voluntarily cease doing business with infringing websites, outside of any court ordered actions.” If a search engine considers a web site to be a law infringer, not only it will be able to disable their advertising, but it will have a legal right to do so.
The PROTECT IP Act also gives the right to trademark and copyright holders to go to court and target foreign domains directly, without government mediation. However, they won’t be able to sue search engines and internet providers, only payment processors and advertising networks.
Facebook is collaborating with Baidu, the Chinese search engine, to launch a new social networking site in China. To be allowed in the country, the site should have censor-friendly options. Facebook is said to have accepted the requirements of the government’s censorship in order to launch the site in China, because this market is potentially profitable for the company.
All the users will have access to the new site, but their stored private data will be made available to the government. “When Facebook users outside China connect with users inside the country, sources say they will need to click through a warning message stating that any material visible to Chinese users may also be visible to the Chinese government,” – All Things Digital reports. Facebook also might be using input and display filters that will not allow Chinese users to see and post things that contradict the government’s policies.
The creation of the site seems like a weak compromise between the company and the Chinese government. After the demonstrations in Egypt and Libya, Facebook became a place for free speech and personal liberties. If the new site is censored, it will be a step toward the limitation of increased internet freedom.
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Recently, Freedom House has released its report Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media. The report contains information about internet freedom in 37 countries. It says that the violation of users’ rights has increased and has become more varied during the last few years. Among the main threats to online freedom are the cyber attacks, politically-motivated censorship and government control over internet infrastructure.
Bans against access, restrictions on content and users’ rights violations were the major points of evaluation regarding internet freedom in the countries studied. In accordance with the report, Estonia has the highest level of internet freedom. The United States are on second place and Iran is last. Eleven other countries are evaluated as "Not Free", among them Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. There are also plans to restrict the internet freedom during the next twelve months in countries such as Jordan, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The situation is very difficult in the countries where internet is under the total control of the governments. Sanja Kelly, managing editor of the report, claimed that “the ability to communicate political views, organize, debate, and have access to critical information is as important online as it is in the offline world. A more urgent response is needed to protect bloggers and other internet users from the sorts of restrictions that repressive governments have already imposed on traditional media”.
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Russia is going to create its own web laws and wants the other countries to share their experience of regulating the use of Internet. The Russian government will analyse the best examples of web regulation in other countries before drafting the new legislation.
Recently, the Russian Federal Security Service asked for access to communication services such as Skype and Gmail. The agency claimed that the "uncontrolled use of these services could lead to a large-scale threat to Russian security".
Russian internet users are afraid of the government extending web censorship. They also worry about protecting their internet privacy once the new laws are passed. These concerns became stronger after hacker attacks on the LiveJournal blogging site that led to a close down of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's blog during more than one hour.
However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin understated the danger of web censorship. He claimed that "the Internet is a tool for solving social and administrative problems; it is an opportunity to communicate, to express yourself, it is a tool for improving your living standards" and expressed his opinion that "it is not possible to restrict anything."
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