You've probably heard of the Great Firewall of China, which scrubs the web of any potentially subversive content for half a billion internet users. And you've definitely heard about the Egyptian government's decision to switch off all internet and mobile-phone networks at the height of the uprising in 2011. But there are a host of lesser-known threats to internet freedom, some of which endanger the very nature of the net as we know it.
Next week, over 20 civil society representatives from around the world will join a Freedom House delegation in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations' flagship conference for discussing global internet policy. The delegation will be addressing a range of internet freedom issues covered in our 2012 report Freedom on the Net, including these, the top five threats to internet freedom you've never heard of:
Next month, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will hold a major meeting in Dubai that could fundamentally alter the structure and global reach of the internet. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will consider whether and how the ITU should take over regulation of the internet from multistakeholder processes like the IGF. Only governments can be members of the ITU, although corporations can pony up the tens of thousands of dollars needed to buy "observer status."
WCIT will be more or less closed to civil society actors, but we know that repressive and democratic member states alike are putting forward proposals that could stifle the internet as a force for economic development and positive social change. One European proposal would put tariffs on internet traffic between states, while another, supported by Middle Eastern countries and Russia, would give the ITU authority over cybercrime, and could have negative effects on privacy, anonymity, and human rights. What's at stake in December is not just the open, cooperative process through which the internet has historically been governed, but also the web's role as a creator of prosperity and an enabler of civic engagement.
2. Digital Violence
As citizens take advantage of the internet to advocate for political, civil, and human rights, governments and nonstate entities have lashed out at these online activists, seeking to silence their voices. Cyberattacks, including distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, have been used widely to take down the websites of independent media in Russia and elsewhere, while Syrian and Tibetan activists have been aggressively targeted with phishing and malware assaults that aim to steal their private information and undermine their security. While it is difficult to identify the sources of these attacks, it is all but certain that they originate with government agents. In highly repressive states, including Bahrain, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam, this digital violence can spill over into the offline world. Reports abound of citizens being tortured or even killed in police custody because of their online activities.
3. Intermediary Liability
Censorship is hard work. There are an awful lot of blog posts, videos, cartoons, and comments that might contain subversive messages, and any government seeking to "purify" the internet would have to spend a great deal of time and money on the project. So rather than take on the task of policing online content themselves, many governments have outsourced censorship to the private sector. They do so by making internet intermediaries-including internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, hosting services, social-media platforms, and other community forums-legally responsible for the content their users post.
For example, in Thailand, where it is illegal to speak ill of the royal family, someone posted offending messages in a popular online news forum. Rather than block the offending page or go after the commenter, the government sentenced the moderator of the forum to eight months in prison for failing to remove the comments quickly enough. In many countries with laws like this, intermediaries are so intimidated that they cast a very wide net, removing content that may not even be illegal and fundamentally restricting freedom of expression and the free flow of information.
4. Online Misinformation
Over the past decade, activists have gotten better at using the web to organize supporters, share ideas, and advocate for change. Unfortunately, authoritarian governments are learning to do exactly the same things. One of the fastest-rising negative trends is the spread of misinformation and veiled propaganda by repressive regimes seeking to undermine independent media and discredit critical citizens.
In China and Russia, government apparatchiks and their hirelings stay busy posting proregime messages all over the internet, drowning out independent voices. In Iran, the government has spent over $50 million to produce and disseminate domestic propaganda on the web. Leading up to the Egyptian election this year, a Facebook account dedicated to reports of electoral irregularities was hacked, and pro-military messages were published in their place. In the long run, the balance of power may favor the voices of the many over the powerful few, but these governments and others are working hard to dominate what could otherwise be a vibrantly democratic space.
5. Mobile Privacy
Mobile-phone networks were built for functionality, not privacy. Whether you subscribe to Verizon in the United States, Vodafone in Egypt, or MTN in Iran, your mobile network retains a lot of information about you: Every phone call is recorded, every text message is saved, and every place you go is captured by the network's location-tracking software. Even if the privacy implications don't bother you, mobile-phone users who happen to disagree with a repressive government have a lot to fear, as network operators are typically very willing to share information with the state security apparatus. Indeed, in many countries, they're just another branch of the government.
One of the great things about the way the internet is currently governed is that anybody with a stake in internet policy can join the debate-governments, technologists, academics, human rights activists, and businesses alike. This multistakeholder model has been key to keeping the internet free and open. At the IGF this year, the Freedom House delegation will be taking part in this global discussion, engaging at the highest levels to protect human rights online and help shape the future of the internet.