If there’s one thing that reassures many internet users around the world it’s the solemn promise given by the US government to promote and support internet freedom.
Lest the international community doubt its resolve, the US State Department, on its website, has vowed to work to advance Internet freedom as “an aspect of the universal rights of freedom of expression and the free flow of information.”
It says the U.S. stands for “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas” and maintains that its push for Internet freedom is “grounded in international commitments to free expression and the free flow of information as fundamental human rights.”
The Obama Administration, like others before it, does not take kindly to foreign governments censoring what their citizens view on the Internet, or imposing laws that restrict internet access. It labels those governments as ‘oppressive regimes’ and cites countries like Iran and China as typical examples. It even funds new technologies designed to break internet censorship in those countries.
Given the US government’s penchant for robust and vocal advocacy on the issue of internet freedom, the move by the US Department of Defence in June to block American servicemen and women’s online access to news reports about the leak of classified National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden must have puzzled and disturbed many Americans. Millions of computers on all Department of Defence networks and systems were affected by the blackout.
The Department of Defense described the censorship as “network hygiene” meant to cleanse military servers of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart told U.S. News, “This is the same as what we did during the Wikileaks situation.”
The Pentagon’s predilection for censorship would come as no surprise to Americans who are familiar with its history. In his book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon shapes and censors the movies, David L. Robb, a former journalist for Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter discloses how at the start of World War 1, Washington established a Committee of Public Information, which created guidelines for all media to promote domestic support for the war.
Military officials provided Hollywood studios with equipment, personnel and advice on numerous American movies. The Pentagon even established a “film approval” process and a special movie liaison office as part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs.
Censorship is by no means the exclusive preserve of the Pentagon. Internet search giant, Google recently released a report that revealed the growing number of censorship requests it has been receiving from governments worldwide, including the US and other Western countries.
Every six months Google publishes transparency reports to disclose how many requests it has received from government agencies to hand over user data or to remove content. They started doing so in 2010. The report for 2012 shows that for January to June of that year Google received 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world for user data — a 55 percent increase in requests received during the same period in 2010. Google does not comply with all requests.
“One trend has become clear,” said Google. “Government surveillance is on the rise. The United States by far made the most requests for user data, submitting more than one-third of the 20,938 received. India was second, followed by Brazil.”
“Unfortunately,” Google lamented further, “what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling … When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.
“This is the fifth data set that we’ve released. And just like every other time before, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect — Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”
As bad as all this sounds, it gets worse.
The FBI has reportedly been urging Internet companies not to oppose a controversial proposal in the United States that would require firms like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to build backdoors for government surveillance.
Back in May 2012 CNet reported that senior FBI officials met with industry representatives, the White House and U.S. senators in a bid to convince them that “the dramatic shift” from communication by telephone to the Internet has made it “far more difficult for agents to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities.”
According to CNet the FBI general counsel’s office had “drafted a proposed law that the bureau claims is the best solution: requiring that social-networking websites and providers of VoIP, instant messaging, and Web e-mail alter their code to ensure their products are wiretap-friendly.”
In April 2012 the German government disclosed that between 2008 and 2011, representatives from the FBI, the U.K.’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and France’s secret service, the DCRI, were among organisations that had held meetings with the German federal police about using “monitoring software” to secretly infiltrate computers, an action usually associated with criminals.
As for whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s covert surveillance antics, House Democrat Loretta Sanchez warned that they are just “the tip of the iceberg.”
She said lawmakers had learned “significantly more” about the spy programs at the National Security Agency during a briefing with counterterrorism officials.
Some influential Americans, including Vinton G. Cerf, a computer scientist recognized as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” have contended that Internet access is not a human right. Cerf argues that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.”
He added: “There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.”
Cerf is not bothered about government attempts to control the Internet. He has said that he believes their efforts will fail because the Web is almost entirely privately owned.
A blogpost on a website associated with American author, inventor, futurist, and a director of engineering at Google, Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil supports Cerf’s views.
All this must be music to the ears of the 12 countries listed as ‘Enemies of the Internet’ by Reporters Without Borders. (See PDF copy of Enemies of the Internet 2012 report)
The more Western governments incline towards internet surveillance and censorship (no matter how legitimate their concerns), the more they undermine their moral authority to point fingers at the likes of China and Iran.
Matthew Ingram at Gigaom makes a sobering observation. He suggests that not defining internet access as a human or civil right “makes it easier for governments to place restrictions on access or even shut it down entirely.”
From all indications, the rest of the world is increasingly coming to accept internet surveillance and censorship as a necessary evil. This is the chilling reality of the digital world in which we now live.