While the Internet is widely considered one of the most democratizing tools in history, there still remain countries where the free flow of information over the World Wide Web is restricted.
In fact, at least 25 countries block Web sites for political, social or other reasons, with governments controlling domestic networks, according to a new study.
The OpenNet Initiative, a nonprofit collaborative partnership of four of the world’s leading academic institutions, said the number is likely even higher than 25 nations, but because of limited resources it only had the ability to investigate 40 countries and the Palestinian territories.
Still, the researchers ran into more censorship than they initially anticipated, a sign that the Internet has matured to the point that governments are taking notice, according to the study.
“Not surprisingly, as net penetration keeps increasing, you are going to see even higher rates of filtering,” Mukul Krishna, global manager of digital media practice with Frost & Sullivan, told TechNewsWorld, noting that as Internet penetration continues to grow tremendously in places like India and Africa, we are “going to see more of this Big Brother type of thing.
“There are always going to be certain places you can’t go,” Krishna said.
Web applications such as Google Maps and Skype as well as so-called subversive Web sites were often featured on content blocking lists. However, five years ago only a “couple” of states were exercising similar controls, according to the study.
The Biggest Culprits
The countries with the most restrictive Internet policies regarding the free flow of political information include China, Iran, Myanmar, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam.
Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen had the strictest social-filtering practices, blocking pornography, gambling and gay and lesbian sites, according to the study.
“Online censorship is growing in scale, scope and sophistication around the world, which is not surprising, given the importance of the medium,” John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said in the report.
The report was conducted by groups at four universities — Harvard University, Cambridge, the University of Oxford and the University of Toronto — and covered thousands of Web sites and 120 Internet service providers.
It appears that not every country wants to advertise their filtering habits, as nine countries, including China, Pakistan and Vietnam, reportedly use technology to conceal their censorship, disguising it with techniques such as flashing network error messages.
Researchers found no filtering at all in Russia, Israel or the Palestinian territories despite political conflicts there.
In some countries, censorship was very limited. In South Korea, for example, the government tends to block only information about its neighboring rival, North Korea.
In fact, Krishna pointed out the United State is not immune to this type of Internet interference. Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the government has stepped up it its level of monitoring of the country’s netizens.
“Right now there is a lot of monitoring going on,” he said.
Getting Around Filters
Once citizens discover they are being blocked from accessing certain sites, there really isn’t much they can do. Most governments had no mechanism for citizens to complain about erroneous blocking, according to the report.
However, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates do provide an official outlet for complaints.
The report also studied some technical approaches, noting that some are better than others in blocking sites, but all can be bypassed with enough technical expertise and the right software.