TREND: An increased appetite and capacity for certain governments to monitor their citizens’ activities and control/limit the information they can access, assisted by progressively sophisticated approaches including the bulk monitoring of communications data across multiple platforms

The expansion of Internet connectivity and conversion of information and communications technologies has simultaneously fuelled the appetite and capacity of many authoritarian administrations to monitor their citizens’ activity and control/limit the information and content they can access. In a 2012 survey of 47 countries, the Freedom on the Net report (see page 1) concluded that while methods of control are evolving to become less visible, 20 of those examined countries have experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011 (Bahrain, Pakistan and Ethiopia were identified as the headline offenders). According to a 2010 Princeton University study “A Taxonomy of Internet Censorship and Anti-Censorship” (see page 18), Internet censorship has steadily increased since 1993 with the sharpest incline occurring from 2007-2010. In the aforementioned Freedom on the Net Report (see page 6), 19 of the 47 analysed countries have passed new laws or directives since January 2011 which could negatively affect online free speech, user privacy, or punish individuals posting certain types of content.

Censorship, surveillance and control methods can range from the lo-tech (physical intimidation, incarceration and legislation limiting freedom of expression) to progressively hi-tech methods (FOTN Report, see page 10) including the bulk monitoring of communications data across a range of platforms (mobile phone conversations, texts, emails, browsing history, social networking traffic…etc). The most sophisticated instances can involve real time monitoring of communications data linked to predetermined key words, email addresses and phone numbers. In a growing number of countries speech recognition software is being used to scan spoken conversations to identify sensitive key words or particular individuals of interest. A 2010 paper sponsored by Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law on “Networked Authoritarianism in China” (see page 17) highlighted the example of sophisticated military-grade cyber-attacks launched against Google which specifically targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists (either working in China or working on China-related matters).

The Open Net Initiative (ONI) a collaboration between the University of Toronto, the Berkman Centre for Cyber Law at Harvard University and Ottawa’s SecDev Group, offers a number of helpful resources, including a selection of country and regional profiles on Internet censorship and filtering practices. It also offers a series of interactive maps which show the states and regions where each type of Internet filtering takes place, as well as dedicated maps indicating states and regions where YouTube is censored and where any of the five major social media platforms (including Facebook and Twitter) have been blocked or filtered. In an interview with the Guardian in April 2012, ONI principal investigator and Director of Citzenlab Ronald Deibert said “…what we’ve found over the last decade is the spectrum of content that’s targeted for filtering has grown to include political content and security-related content, especially in authoritarian regimes. The scope and scale of content targeted for filtering has grown” (Guardian article, April 2012).