The business of stifling the Internet

Alan Boyd
Asia Times
1 February 2004

Internet users are losing ground in the censorship war being fought in Asia’s cyberwaves, partly because Western corporations are helping to undermine the spirit of enterprise that made the medium such a potent weapon for free speech.

While smarter and more discreet communication technologies offer a way around creeping state controls, advocates of reduced government intervention fear that multinationals may present a far greater long-term threat.

Media watchdog Privacy International warned in a year-long study released in September that corporations with a vastly different agendas were quietly hijacking the ‘Net for their own commercial ends. At the same time, almost all governments worldwide – including many supposed flagbearers of democracy – were exploiting terrorism fears to enact laws that would impede the flow of information.

“Governments and their agencies have traditionally viewed new technologies with suspicion, arguing that their presence can disturb the hard-won ‘balance’ of rights and responsibilities, in the same way that large companies have traditionally viewed any new media as a threat to the balance of their markets,” co-authors Simon Davies and Karen Banks wrote in a foreword.

“Technological developments are being implemented to protect a free Internet, but the knowledge gap between radical innovators and restrictive institutions appears to be closing,” they said.

The study, and a flurry of other recent reports by media watchdogs and human-rights organizations, confirm what many frustrated Asian consumers had suspected: meddling in the ‘Net has intensified during the past two or three years.

Websites and their harassed subscribers have fought back with a game of subterfuge that many had expected would eventually exhaust surveillance resources by stretching their ability to monitor constantly changing techniques. Online addresses have been rerouted through a maze of cyber corridors to fool proxy government servers that attempt to block content by filtering all data before it actually reaches the public domain.

Crossover technologies between the Internet and mobile phones are opening up other possibilities, as websites use messaging services to keep regular users informed of suppressed content or shifting site locations.

Amnesty International (AI) noted this week that even in China, widely regarded as having the most repressive Internet climate worldwide, online activism has become more evident as controls have been tightened.

“Over the last year, there have been signs of Internet users acting increasingly in solidarity with one another, in particular by expressing support for each other online,” the human-rights group stated, adding: “Such expressions of solidarity have proved dangerous, as a growing number of people have been detained on the basis of such postings.”

Amnesty International listed the names of 54 Chinese nationals who had been detained or sentenced for expressing their opinions online, or for downloading information from the Internet, since November 2002 – a 60 percent increase in that period. This was in addition to an unknown number of people who were still in detention for disseminating information about the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) over the Internet last year.

Most Internet criminals in China have been charged under 1995 decrees that make all users register with their local police stations and sign an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security that they will not engage in “subversion” or “endanger state security”. The edicts carry prison sentences of two to 12 years. A separate proclamation issued by then-premier Li Peng in 1996 required that all international computer networking traffic, both incoming and outgoing, be routed through state channels.

China, as well as autocratic neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, got its censorship cue from Singapore, whose filtering system is arguably the most effective in Asia. Because it controls the three Internet service providers, Singapore was able to set up a computerized proxy server in the 1990s that screens all websites for content viewed as “objectionable” or a potential threat to national security.

Although political leaders in the republic acknowledge that some loosening of media controls is inevitable as education and income levels grow, they are not in any hurry to oblige.

“I have no doubt that our society must open up further. The government has no monopoly of knowledge and ideas. To understand and tackle our challenges fully and vigorously, we need to draw on the expertise and resources of all our people,” Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an address to the Harvard Club this month. “But we will not ape others blindly and do something simply because it appears fashionable. Coffee-shop talk is helpful for sensing the popular mood, but it cannot be the basis for deciding on national policies,” Lee said.

Singapore acted as an adviser to several of the communist states when they were setting up their Internet filters in the late 1990s. Most initially had little success because of Cold War limits on technology transfers.

However, this has all changed in the past decade, as Western companies have targeted emerging investment opportunities for telecommunication systems, especially in China.

China, with a reputed 30,000 full-time Internet surveillance operatives for the country’s 45 million web surfers, now has access to the same cutting-edge technology that content providers were using to skirt its censorship regime.

The Amnesty International report named Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Websense and Sun Microsystems as multinationals that had supplied Beijing with Internet equipment without imposing any conditions on its use.

Privacy International, which has also campaigned against unrestricted sales, noted: “Without the aid of this technology transfer, it is unlikely that non-democratic regimes could impose the current levels of control over Internet activity.”

An equally worrying trend is that Western corporations, including many in the mass media, are manipulating the Internet to pursue their own business objectives without considering the adverse effects elsewhere.

According to the Privacy International study, “multinational corporate censors” with different agendas from their governments’ have represented one of the most important growth trends in recent years.

“Some American cable companies seek to turn the Internet into a controlled distribution medium like TV and radio, and are putting in place the necessary technological changes to the Internet’s infrastructure to do so,” warned Simon Davies and Karen Banks. “It is arguable that in the first decade of the 21st century, corporations will rival governments in threatening Internet freedoms.”

Some Western governments indirectly add to this process by using commercial pressures to impose misguided censorship standards on software manufacturers, even with products that were designed to blunt the technological edge of repressive regimes. Last year the makers of Safeweb, a US software package that was developed in partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency to help Chinese users avoid censorship, were forced to install a filter on some content so it would qualify for US public funding.

Asian governments have taken note of the financial and political benefits of letting the commercial world assume the censorship burden, which takes some of the human-rights heat off security agencies.

For the past 12 months, China has been delegating responsibility for surveillance and monitoring to private companies, including Internet cafes and information service providers. Davies and Banks argued that Western governments were neglecting their leadership responsibilities to ensure that the Internet is allowed to evolve without political or commercial constraints.

In many cases this has occurred, they said, because political leaders have overreacted to perceived security threats posed by the free flow of information since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

“While paying lip service to personal freedoms, the leaders of the democratic world have affirmed with uncharacteristic harmony that the pursuit of a safer society must prompt a reassessment of individual liberties and privacy,” they said.

“In its most blatant manifestation, this will result in a substantial increase in the right of the state to place controls on all citizens, shifting the default in favor of comprehensive surveillance over the population.

“Technology is at the same time the culprit and the savior.”