This article first appeared at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, January 5, 2015:
Excitement over the positive impact the Gutenberg Press had on freedom led Mark Twain to exclaim:
What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage … for the bad that this colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.
More than two hundred years later, Andrew Wile, blogging at The Daily Bell, was equally ebullient, this time about the Internet – Gutenberg 2.0 – saying:
The education that takes place every day [through the internet] is eroding the elite’s hold on government, economics, military power and, most importantly, on the minds and psyches of the once easily controlled masses.
The Freedom House, however, in its latest iteration of “Freedom on the Net 2014,” was significantly less enchanted:
Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fourth consecutive year, with a growing number of countries introducing online censorship and monitoring practices that are simultaneously more aggressive and more sophisticated in their targeting of individual users….
As a result, more people are being arrested for their internet activity than ever before, online media outlets are increasingly being pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests for data or deletions.
The threats posed to the elite by the internet have been sufficient to cause dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin to declare a “personal data law” that, starting this coming September, will require all companies to store their data on Russian citizens only on servers physically located in his country. That way, according to the New York Times, which reported on it last week, “it will be easier for the government to get access to it.”
And why would they want access to it, pray tell? To punish, to discourage, to eliminate, not only the anti-government articles flowing from bloggers disenchanted by Putin’s thuggery, but the bloggers themselves.
What really got Putin’s goat was a Facebook page promoting a rally for a political dissident, Alexei Navalny, “the man Vladimir Putin fears [the] most,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Navalny had been arrested several times on various charges, including embezzlement and treachery. His current trial was scheduled for January 15th, and the last thing Putin wanted was for this rally to get traction. But when Facebook complied (stating that it wanted to work with Putin in order to keep its Russian customers happy) and took down the offending post, within hours hundreds of copycat pages popped up everywhere, creating even more publicity for the event.
This was naturally very encouraging to another Russian dissident, Anton Nosik, who had also run afoul of Putin’s internet regulatory agency, called Roskomnadzor. Putin’s demand was absurd, said Nosik:
The reader wants to see what he was prevented from seeing. All that blocking doesn’t work.
Putin isn’t the only one to get his tail tweaked by the internet. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered equally painful embarrassment when he asked Twitter to stop publishing documents exposing corruption in his administration. When Twitter ignored him, he shut the place down. Once again, within hours other sites began replicating the damaging documents while bloggers were spray painting instructions on how to do “workarounds” on walls of buildings downtown, turning everyone into a hacker. Said Asli Tunc, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University:
We all became hackers. And we all got on Twitter.
For the moment at least, Putin isn’t exercising his dictatorial powers, probably because his economy is in such a shambles that the very last thing he needs is another blow. As one critic of his new law noted:
It [would] become impossible for Russian citizens to book an air ticket via the website of a foreign airline or to book a hotel room via international booking systems, since personal data [would] be collected and stored [outside Russia].
But Putin could, at any moment, said Nosik: “The moment Putin wants it done, it will be done … and no law will be required.”
The 40-page report from The Freedom House was filled with examples of outrageous attacks on bloggers and journalists, resulting in many of them being arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to long terms in slave labor camps. They are using terror tactics, “thereby deterring others and encouraging self-censorship,” said the study’s authors. “This approach can present the appearance of a technically uncensored internet while effectively limiting certain types of speech.”
Noted the authors:
Of the 65 countries assessed, 36 have experienced a negative trajectory since May 2013. The most significant declines were in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
The Russian government took multiple steps to increase control over the online sphere, particularly in advance of the Sochi Olympic Games and during the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
In Turkey, the blocking of social media, limits on circumvention tools, cyber attacks against opposition news sites, and assaults on online journalists were among the most prominent threats during the year.
Syria, the report noted, was the most dangerous country in the world for citizen journalists, “with dozens killed in the past year” while Iran “maintained its position as the worst country for internet freedom in 2014.”
In some countries, the penalties for online expression are worse than those for similar actions offline. In Pakistan, for example, a woman suffered death by stoning in June, 2013 after a court convicted her of possessing a mobile phone. In Iran, 16 employees of the gadget review site Narenji were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to jail terms of up to 11 years. Their crime? They had communicated with “anti-Iranian media.”
Happily, there is pushback against such incursions, including Greatfire.org which began hosting internet content that is unblockable by the Chinese dictatorship, along with FireChat, which enabled protestors in Hong Kong to communicate with each other through a network of Bluetooth connections.
There’s Freegate, a software app that enables internet users in China, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates to access websites blocked by their governments. There’s Ultrasurf, another software app to bypass China’s internet firewall, boasting more than 11 million users worldwide.
As the authors noted in concluding their survey,
In these and a growing number of other countries, the internet is a crucial medium not just for personal communication or news and information but for political participation and civic engagement.
The struggle for internet freedom is consequently inseparable from the struggle for freedom of every kind.
As Mark Twain and Andrew Wile failed to note, freedom isn’t free and the war against oppression will never end as long as thugs like Putin and Erdogan retain power. But it is a battle worth fighting.
FreedomHouse.org: FREEDOM ON THE NET 2014
New York Times: Web Freedom Is Seen as a Growing Global Issue
Russia Behind the Headlines: New personal data storage law to affect both foreign and domestic players
Russia Behind the Headlines: Putin signs personal data protection law
LightFromTheRight.com: The Internet: Gutenberg Press of the 21st Century