September 23, 2011 | By Jillian York

This Week in Internet Censorship: Blocking Social Sites in Pakistan and Syria; Freedom House Releases New Report

This week brings new restrictions in Syria and Pakistan, while watchdog group Freedom House releases a new brief on the growing challenges to Internet freedom.

Syria Blocks WordPress

This has been a tumultuous year for Syrians and for the Syrian Internet. In response to protests beginning in February, the Syrian government unblocked Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube for the first time since 2007. While some observers saw it as a move toward a freer Internet, others viewed it as better enabling surveillance; the latter turned out to be right.

Now, amidst a new wave of protests, the Syrian government has reverted to their old methods, blocking WordPress on at least one ISP. But as one circumvention-savvy Syrian Twitter user said, "They blocked WordPress… as if people are still using the Syrian proxy." If you want to help support Syrian Internet users, one thing you can do is set up a Tor relay.

Pakistan Inches Closer to Facebook Ban

Pakistan, no stranger to Internet censorship, has made new moves this week to block Facebook and other social sites. First, Interior Minister Rehman Malik threatened to block Google and YouTube, saying that if the companies weren't willing to help Pakistan fight terrorism, then the country would have to resort to blocking (ignoring, of course, the fact that Pakistanis are well-versed in circumvention technology).

Then, as the result of a previously filed petition, the Lahore High Court ordered the Ministry of Information and Technology to block Facebook, on the grounds that "Islamic values are being derogated in the name of information that is hurting feeling of billions of Muslims." Facebook famously refused to remove cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in May 2010, resulting in temporary bans on Facebook in Pakistan and several other countries. Free expression activists in the country--who reported a temporary outage of Facebook and Twitter early Friday--have stated that blocking Facebook will "affect civil liberties, [as well as] minorities, and human rights defenders" that use the site for their work.

For a local take on what's happening in Pakistan, editor Jahanzaib Haque has an opinion piece in the Express Tribune, taking a look at the various ways in which Pakistani authorities are trying to curb speech. Haque writes:

All the government is actually doing — by condoning this across-the-board banning of sites and monitoring in cyberspace — is stepping on the rights of its citizens, and impinging on their freedom of information and expression, and privacy.

Freedom House issues new report on growing challenges to Internet freedom

Freedom House is a watchdog group that issues yearly reports on the state of Internet freedom worldwide. Today, in anticipation of the upcoming Internet Governance Forum, they've released a brief by Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs for the organization, on the growing challenges to Internet freedom.

Highlighting important challenges to free expression, such as "just-in-time" blocking, intermediary liability, surveillance, and government-enabled cyberattacks, Calingaert makes several recommendations to the U.S. and European governments to strengthen Internet freedom. Namely, he recommends:

  • Challenge restrictive internet laws and practices
  • Address internet censorship as a barrier to free trade
  • Require transparency in sales and services to internet-restricting countries
  • Introduce export controls on censorship and surveillance technology

EFF shares several of Freedom House's concerns and are thrilled to see discussions taking place around these issues, particularly the export of surveillance and censorship technology, an issue that we're currently tackling as well.


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