AT A UNITED NATIONS conference on telecommunications governance in Dubai last December representatives of most of the world’s countries argued furiously over the way the internet should be managed. The debate established a clear divide over how much control a country should have over its own internet. On one side were America, the European Union and other developed countries that broadly back internet freedom; on the other were China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and a number of other authoritarian states. A significant majority of these seem to favour China’s approach to control (or a Russian variant), which involves allowing more access to the internet and reaping the economic benefits, but at the same time monitoring, filtering, censoring and criminalising free speech online.
Many Asian and African countries are using Chinese technology both to deliver access to the internet and to control its use, and some Central Asian republics are believed to use Russian surveillance technology as well. A very few, such as Turkmenistan, prefer the North Korean model, in which hardly anybody is allowed to go online, and a few others, including Azerbaijan, do little to encourage use of the internet. Katy Pearce, of the University of Washington, explains that Azerbaijan has run an effective campaign against the evils of the web, linking it to mental illness, divorce, sex-trafficking and paedophilia. She says that only a quarter of Azerbaijan’s population has ever been online, which puts it behind poorer neighbours; and only 7% are on Facebook.
But most authoritarian regimes have allowed the use of the web to grow rapidly, noting that China has found it perfectly possible to embrace the internet while keeping it under close control. In Kazakhstan, for instance, some 50% of the population is now online, compared with 3.3% in 2006, though access is tempered by some Big Brotherish constraints.
What’s your weapon?
In Russia, Nigeria, Vietnam and elsewhere the government is paying people to blog and comment in support of government priorities, a tactic China started in 2005 with its “50-Cent Party” of web commentators for hire. Belarus, Ethiopia, Iran and many others are believed to use “deep packet inspection” to look into internet users’ communications for subversive content, aided by hardware from, among others, China’s Huawei and ZTE. Obligingly, internet users who know they are being watched are more likely to exercise self-censorship in the first place.
In addition some authoritarian states selectively block access to foreign websites that carry politically sensitive content, along with shutting down or harassing domestic opposition websites. In some countries opposition websites are subjected to massive denial-of-service attacks. Another technique, borrowed from Russia, is to accuse troublesome website operators of extremism or defamation, which in some countries are criminal offences. This method is employed by Kazakhstan, which also blocks some sites without acknowledgment, much less an explanation, in the same way as China does. Kazakhstan officials say they have a completely free, lively internet and block only extremist content. But that sounds doubtful in a country that also cracks down on its opposition press and where the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, regularly claims more than 90% of the vote in elections.
A growing number of such countries have an internet that each of them can call their own, walled off as much or as little as suits them. They argue that Western governments also manage the internet, censoring it and shutting down objectionable websites, so they should let others do the same. This was the crux of the debate at the telecommunications conference in Dubai. Russia, China and 87 other states insisted that all countries should recognise each other’s sovereign right to connect to the internet in their own way. That resolution failed, but China’s internet model is clearly attracting plenty of followers.
Source: The Economist (06.04.2013)