Even though the World Wide Web is over 25 years old, we’re still in the Wild West of the Internet Age.
An ever-expanding network of websites created by people all over the world, the World Wide Web is home to over a trillion gigabytes of data. The total number of websites online has just exceeded 1 billion, with hundreds of new sites going live every day.
And as fast as the Internet is growing, notoriously slow-moving governments have a hard time keeping up.
But that doesn’t stop some governments organizations from trying. Ostensibly in the interest of security, government organizations around the world are trying to monitor everything that happens online so they can stamp out illegal activity.
The NSA is a famous example. In the name of security, they monitor United States citizens’ online activity, both public and private, on Google, Facebook, Skype, and even by spying on your smartphone.
But the US isn’t the only country keeping a close eye on your every move: Countries on every continent have formed special organizations and task forces to monitor the activity of not only their own citizens, but of people around the world.
And they’re not only monitoring activity, but restricting it as well. Any website deemed illegal or harmful to their citizens is blocked, including news sites, blogs, and even social media. In some countries they can even enter your home to search for illegal media if evidence of your activities is found online.
Who’s watching your every move online? The NSA knows what you’re up to — but they’re not the only ones. Even countries you may think of as valuing the freedom of their citizens may not be governed by people who believe in a free Internet.
Think you have Internet freedom? We might for now, but you’re still being closely monitored. Here’s who’s doing the watching.
Who Are the Enemies of Internet Freedom?
Who are those who seek to control the web for their own purposes? Who justify censorship and surveillance under the pretense of national security?
Reporters Without Borders have singled out the following as enemies of the free and open internet in 2014.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 17
- Offending Department: National Security Agency (NSA)
- Weakening privacy
- Project Bullrun aimed to weaken online privacy by inserting vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems.
- Monitoring citizens
- Under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the PRSIM surveillance program set out to monitor electronic exchanges among users of Google, Facebook and Skype.
- Smartphone spying
- The NSA is capable of accessing users’ data from leading manufacturers of smartphones, including iPhones and Android mobile operating systems.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 24
- Offending Department: Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ)
- Tempora program
- With help from telecom firms, including BT and Verizon, GCHQ placed data interceptors on fiber-optic cables carrying internet data in and out of the UK.
- Edgehill program
- This program aimed to break encryption codes used by 15 major internet companies and 300 virtual private networks (VPNs) by 2015.
- Anonymity attacks
- With help from the NSA, GCHQ made repeated attempts to develop attacks against users of Tor, an anonymity network.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 47
- Offending Department: Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT)
- Privacy at stake
- Under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, anyone who refuses to decrypt private information upon official request faces up to 7 years in prison.
- Automated inception
- A ‘Central Monitoring System’ automatically monitors all online communication, giving government agencies direct access to web users’ data.
- NETRA, a hardware device, will be capable of tracking internet calls and messages. The government is planning to install it at ISP level at 1,000+ locations.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 54
- Offending Department: Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB)
- According to rublacklist.net, 35,000 sites have been blocked accidentally for sharing an IP address with others containing ‘harmful’ content.
- Putin’s ‘bloggers law’ requires all web-based writers with over 3,000 daily page hits to register with the government.
- Russian law allows state agencies to block websites without a court order if they call on people to attend unsanctioned protest rallies.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 67
- Offending Department: Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)
- The government has blocked up to 40,000 websites, including YouTube and Pakistan’s gay community support site queerpk.com.
- According to a report by Citizen Lab, the government is using Canadian-based Netsweeper, alongside Domain Name System (DNS) tampering, for political and social filtering.
- Unwarranted surveillance
- The proposed Electronic Documents and Prevention of Cybercrimes Act permits authorities to intercept electronic transmission without a warrant.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 75
- Offending Department: Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC)
- Social media restrictions
- Decree 174, in effect since January 2014, fines those posting “propaganda against the state” on social media $5,000.
- Blogging restrictions
- The Vietnamese government routinely prosecutes bloggers for violating Article 258. This vague code sentences those who “abuse democratic freedoms” to 7 years’ prison time.
- Journalism restrictions
- According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Vietnam is holding 18 journalists behind bars, mostly for their work online.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 85
- Offending Department: Syrian Communications Establishment (STE)/Syrian Computer Society (SCS)
- Syria is prone to internet blackouts. Though the government blames technical issues, foreign outsiders note blackouts tend to coincide with military operations.
- According to the research paper, URL keywords that trigger censorship include ‘proxy’ and ‘Israel’.
- Hacking opposition
- The Syrian Electronic Army has hacked websites including the Washington Post and CNN. Though not officially linked to the government, the group’s website was registered by the SCS.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 86
- Offending Department: State Internet Information Office (SIIO)
- Internet as a propaganda machine
- SIIO is responsible for distributing propaganda. It pays bloggers 50 cents for every post advancing the Communist Party line.
- Internet companies employ 5,000-75,000 people to inspect content. Websites deemed politically sensitive, such as Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times, are blocked.
- At least 70 netizens, including Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, are currently in prison as a result of their online activity.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 91
- Offending Department: Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content/Supreme Council for Cyberspace/Revolutionary Guards
- The current government claims it has reduced censorship, blocking only websites deemed “depraved and immoral”. Twitter and Facebook remain blocked.
- In May 2014, 6 Iranians who recreated Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ video were arrested, forced to apologize on national television and later freed on bail.
- ‘Halal internet’
- Iranian authorities have been working to establish a national intranet. The content available would be controlled to conform to Islamic values.
- Internet Freedom Ranking: 100*
- (*Assumed figure. North Korea doesn’t feature on the official ranking.)
- Offending Department: Central Scientific Technological Information Agency (CSTIA)/Group 109/Department 27
- The national intranet is closely controlled. It has around 1,000-5,000 websites, mainly for universities, libraries and state-run corporations.
- For the few who can access the internet, activity is closely monitored. Computer owners must register with authorities.
- Group 109
- According to a UN report, Group 109 is in charge of inspecting homes for illegal media, such as CDs and DVDs.
The right to privacy and freedom in the digital age is under threat. With the UK, USA and India making the list this year – are democratic nations heading towards a more authoritarian internet?
- China: Electronic Great Wall getting taller – 12mars.rsf.org
- Chinese police chief suspended after online storm over teenager’s detention – theguardian.com
- India: Big Brother up and running – 12mars.rsf.org
- Indian Intelligence Agencies going to deploy Internet Surveillance project NETRA – thehackernews.com
- Govt to launch internet spy system ‘Netra’ soon – timesofindia.indiatimes.com
- Iran: Cyberspace ayatollahs – 12mars.rsf.org
- Iran Takes Aim at Google, Wikipedia in Latest Internet Censorship Effort – mashable.com
- ‘Happy in Tehran’ Video Spurs Harsher Censorship – nytimes.com
- Iran’s Dubious Digital Revolution – usnews.com
- Pakistan: Upgraded censorship – 12mars.rsf.org
- O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee – citizenlab.org
- A new cybercrimes law – tribune.com.pk
- North Korea: the Web as a pawn in the power game – 12mars.rsf.org
- Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Human Rights Council – news.bbc.co.uk
- Russia: control from the top down – 12mars.rsf.org
- Russia Declares War on Bloggers With Sweeping New Censorship Law – thinkprogress.org
- Internet Blackout Sweeps Syria, Again – mashable.com
- Syria Hackers Use Outbrain to Target The Washington Post, Time, and CNN – thewire.com
- What is the Syrian Electronic Army? – theguardian.com
- USA: NSA symbolizes intelligence services’ abuses – 12mars.rsf.org
- Secret Documents Reveal NSA Campaign Against Encryption – nytimes.com
- iSpy: How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data – spiegel.de
- United Kingdom: World champion of surveillance – 12mars.rsf.org
- GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications – theguardian.com
- Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security – theguardian.com
- NSA and GCHQ target Tor network that protects anonymity of web users – theguardian.com
- Vietnam introduces two new internet fines – techinasia.com
- Vietnam: Escalating Persecution of Bloggers – hrw.org
- Vietnam: Drop Prosecution of Blogger – hrw.org
- Vietnamese blogger arrested on anti-state charges – cpj.org
- 2013 Global Scores – freedomhouse.org