The greatest advance in spreading public information since Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1436 is, of course, the internet. From trivial social communications to the vital dissemination of information without the censoring or filtering of governments, media moguls and special interests, the world wide web has allowed an unprecedented flow of news, research and discussions of every sort to reach a far larger audience than had ever been conceived before.
Of course, that success is very threatening to those with a vested interest in restricting what the public reads. Governments such as Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others have vehemently lobbied for censorship, a cause which moved forward when President Obama agreed to surrender control to an international body in which those oppressive regimes held significant interest.
The Pew Research Center has canvassed internet experts who have expressed significant concerns about the future of this vital medium, which they worry “will be challenged by trends that could sharply disrupt the way the Internet works for many users today as a source of largely unfettered content flows.”
According to the Pew report, the threats are categorized into three areas:
“Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet… Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey have blocked Internet access to control information flows when they perceived content as a threat to the current regime. China is known for its “Great Firewall,” seen as Internet censorship by most outsiders… The experts in this survey noted a broad global trend toward regulation of the Internet by regimes that have faced protests and stepped up surveillance of Internet users.”
The Report quoted experts who note that governments are becoming increasingly skilled in the process of blocking and otherwise censoring the internet.
“Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future. Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.”
Recently, The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) analyzed aspects of the internet governance debate.
The report noted that starting in 2003, Russia, China, and the Arab states advanced “an explicit rule-making agenda” for a more “state-controlled and monetary version of the internet.”
According to Freedom House,“Broad surveillance, new laws controlling web content, and growing arrests of social-media users drove a worldwide decline in internet freedom in the past year.”
The study also found that “While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of censorship in many countries, governments are increasingly looking at who is saying what online, and finding ways to punish them…In some countries, a user can get arrested for simply posting on Facebook or for “liking” a friend’s comment that is critical of the authorities…”
Over the past two years, Freedom House notes, 24 nations have enacted laws or regulations limiting internet freedom, with penalties in some cases up to 14 years. “34 countries, including the United States saw troubling declines in internet freedom…the overall score for the United States declined by 5 points on a 100-point scale, in large part due to the recently revealed surveillance activities…. China, Cuba, and Iran were found to be the most repressive countries in terms of internet freedom for the second consecutive year.”
The threat will loom large this fall, when the International Telecommunication Union, a branch of the United Nations, meets from October 20 to November 7.