Sep 25, 2012

The Great Dictator

Yesterday, Freedom House published its third annual report on Freedom on the Net ( The general conclusion is that sophistication is at hand for everyone: for citizens, who try to find more inventive ways to go around obstacles for freedom of speech in the internet, and for governments, who are as well subtly increasing their predatory presence in the virtual world. An additional element: in some countries non-state actors such as organized crime or extremist religious groups are consolidating as censors on the internet.

I cannot say that always, but at least since the French Revolution with Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Police Minister, governments have tried to control or at least survey the political opinions and attitudes of its people in order to prevent the emergence of challengers to the established power. When talking about this kind of government task, it is easy to think of Joseph Goebbels, whose great lesson for oppressive rulers was not only to have censorship organs, but to have them systematically working to block the free flow of information, find and punish its producers, and say something to construct a new social reality (or, to speak plainly, to lie).

That is exactly what many governments around the world have been trying to do. In the Freedom House report, four global trends in addition to simply restricting access to information on the internet are identified. First, legislation. Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka require that websites register with the government for accreditation if they are publishing video or audio content (former case) or any information related to the country (latter case). Of course, legislation implies punishment and, in some cases, it has meant years-long prison terms. An extreme case occurred in Pakistan, where one person was detained and sentenced to death for sending “blasphemous” text messages.

The second trend is paid commentators and the intentional spreading of misinformation. One of the most striking issues here is that governments not only pay individual persons, but also public relations companies (as Iran, Bahrain, Russia or Malaysia are doing). Notwithstanding ethical issues, these organizations re-orient anti-government discussions in blogs towards a positive stance to the regime (even altering published posts or impersonating its authors), discredit bloggers or political elite opponents (in a sex-scandal fashion if necessary), or hack anti-government websites.

The third trend is the intensification of physical attacks against government critics. Illegal detentions and tortures in isolated custody are described in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan. But authorities are not the sole authors of violence against critics, nor detentions the only method of attack. People can get fired from their jobs, banned from international travel, expelled from universities, beaten by religious extremists, have their families harassed, or killed by the organized crime.

Finally, governments are increasing their technological capacities to intensify internet surveillance. Intelligence agencies have acquired access to details on personal communications, frequently in real time. Of course, this can easily lead to prosecution; in Belarus, Bahrain, and Ethiopia communications records have been used as evidence in interrogations or trials. Moreover, some democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom or Mexico have cited national security concerns to increase their surveillance capacities.

The best graded countries (0 points is the best grade, 100 is the worst): Estonia (10), USA (12), Germany (15), Australia (18), and Hungary (19). The worst graded countries: Uzbekistan (77), Syria (83), China (85), Cuba (86), and Iran (90).

As a corollary, there were two events that coincided with the day the review of freedom of speech on the internet was published. First, three Vietnamese bloggers and journalists received an average of 10-year long prison sentences for writing against their national and Chinese governments’ actions. Second, 72 years ago, in 1940, the Look magazine made the first advertisement for Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator. Governments struggle in trying to block freedom. But people always find their way.


1 Comment

  • Thanks for the summary. I agree that “Liberation Technology” is a pretty misleading way to look at the development of social media. It also helps all governments spy on their people. Organizing on-line is a great way for a government to find out what it’s people are planning.

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