Internet arms race pits censorship tactics against new-media tools
Emily Badger: Internet arms race pits censorship tactics against new-media tools
03 May 11

Journalists and media activists meeting in Washington this week for World Press Freedom Day have celebrated the internet at every turn, from its role in catalysing revolutions in North Africa to its hand in breaking the real-time news of Osama bin Laden’s death. (The biggest hero of World Press Freedom Day 2011, by virtue of sheer luck and good timing, may be the Tweeter who unwittingly live-blogged news of the US raid in Pakistan before even bin Laden himself knew what was going on.)

But this year’s press freedom events have also come with a somber undertone, because for every way in which the internet is revolutionising media access and content around the world, authoritarian regimes are growing more sophisticated in the censorship tactics they use to respond. The result is a kind of arms race that will define the new digital as much as Twitter and Facebook will.

Censorship doesn’t solely take the form now of crude Internet firewalls. Increasingly, the press is silenced by an array of tactics that include libel tourism, economic sanctions, denial-of-service attacks, legal maneuvers and infrastructure control. The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report Monday detailing many of these tactics, “The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors.

“The technology used to report the news,” concludes author Danny O’Brien, “has been matched in many ways by the tools used to suppress information.”

O’Brien gave a particularly malicious example Monday on a panel discussion of censorship that also included Index on Censorship Chief Executive John Kampfner. Under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, O’Brien said the Tunisian government didn’t merely block access to sites like Facebook and Google. Rather, it engaged in state cyber crime. The Tunisian Internet Agency created fake, knock-off versions of those same sites and redirected web users to them for the purpose of collecting login names and passwords. That data then allowed the government to access actual accounts on Google, Yahoo and Facebook and censor content directly there.

Kampfner drew attention to the role of libel tourism in silencing journalists, calling attention to the British draft defamation bill unveiled in March as “the single most important development in tackling UK’s hideous libel laws in half a century.”

Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian journalist and human rights activist, equally decried the use of libel suits to intimidate the media.

“The reason why governments sue citizens across international borders is not because they know they can win, but because they know any form of legal process can shut people down,” Sowore said. “The moment you get under this kind of attack, you are pushed to the next level, and that is to seek the advice of a lawyer before you write editorials. And you don’t want lawyers to write your editorials for you.”