Freedom House’s Sanjay Kelly and Sarah Cook just released a new report: Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media. According to the report, two electoral democracies - Turkey and South Korea - engage in substantial political censorship.
The report also notes that political censorship is rising around the world as Internet penetration expands. And as users become more sophisticated in bypassing censorship, regimes grow more savvy about enforcing it. Here are the key take aways from the report:
Governments around the world have responded to soaring internet penetration rates and the rise of user-generated content by establishing mechanisms to block what they deem to be undesirable information. In many cases, the censorship targets content involving illegal gambling, child pornography, copyright infringement, or the incitement of hatred or violence. However, a large number of governments are also engaging in deliberate efforts to block access to information related to politics, social issues, and human rights.
Of the 37 countries examined, the governments of 15 were found to engage in substantial blocking of politically relevant content. In these countries, instances of websites being blocked are not sporadic or limited in scope. Rather, they are the result of an apparent national policy to restrict users’ access to dozens, hundreds, or most often thousands of websites, including those of independent and opposition news outlets, international and local human rights groups, and individual blogs, online videos, or social-networking groups….
Two of the countries categorized by Freedom House as electoral democracies—Turkey and South Korea—were also found to engage in substantial political censorship. In Turkey, a range of advanced web applications were blocked, including the video-sharing website YouTube, which was not accessible in Turkey from May 2008 to October 2010. South Korean authorities blocked access to an estimated 65 North Korea - related sites, including the official North Korean Twitter account, launched in August 2010….
One aspect of censorship was evident across the full spectrum of countries studied: the arbitrariness and opacity surrounding decisions to restrict particular content. In most nondemocratic settings, there is little government effort to inform the public about which content is censored and why. In many cases, authorities avoid confirming that a website has been deliberately blocked and instead remain silent or cite “technical problems.”
Saudi Arabia does inform users when they try to access a blocked site, and the rules governing internet usage are clearly articulated on government portals, but as in many countries, the Saudi authorities often disregard their own guidelines and block sites at will. Even in more transparent, democratic environments, censorship decisions are often made by private entities and without public discussion, and appeals processes may be onerous, little known, or nonexistent.
The widespread use of circumvention tools has eased the impact of content censorship and at times undermined it significantly. Such tools are particularly effective in countries with a high degree of computer literacy or relatively unsophisticated blocking techniques. For example, YouTube remained the eighth most popular website among Turkish users despite being officially blocked in that country for over two years, and the number of Vietnamese Facebook users doubled from one to two million within a year after November 2009, when the site became inaccessible by ordinary means.
Users need special skills and knowledge to overcome blockages in countries such as China and Iran, where filtering methods are more sophisticated and the authorities devote considerable resources to limiting the effectiveness of circumvention tools. Still, activists with the requisite abilities managed to communicate with one another, discuss national events in an uncensored space, and transmit news and reports of human rights abuses abroad.