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Activists Decry Repression on Internet

South Korea wants to require people to open internet accounts under their real names
South Korea wants to require people to open internet accounts under their real names
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Mana Rabiee

A media watchdog group called Reporters Without Borders has accused the United Arab Emirates of arresting people who used the popular BlackBerry device to organize a street protest against petrol price increases. The incident highlighted how governments around the world are increasingly using internet and mobile technology to undermine civil liberties.

Internet freedom activists say the Dubai episode is the latest incident in an alarming trend - that entire governments are censoring the internet.

Robert Guerra, who directs an internet freedom project for a democracy watchdog group, says governments everywhere are cracking down on freedom of expression and online association - in a trend he calls "Repression 2.0".

"We need to follow issues related to surveillance and we need to follow the trend of repression 2.0, the use of social networking tools and social media by governments to tracking down and cracking down on civil society," he said.

As one example, Guerra points to Tunisia, which is suspected of launching sophisticated internet attacks against activists and human rights NGO's (non-governmental organizations).

But human rights lawyer Cynthia Wong says even Western and democratic states are considering policies that put internet freedom at risk.  

Wong says governments are calling for mandatory filtering in an effort to protect children from dangers on the internet. And she says anonymous posts may become a thing of the past - as governments try to address online defamation issues.

"The goal of a lot of these policies is very laudable and very good but some of the laws and the ways countries are addressing the problems tend to undermine freedom online," she said.

Activists like Guerra and Wong point to countries like South Korea, which wants to require people to open internet accounts under their real names.  Guerra believes it's in reaction to street protests that were mobilized by cell phones and anonymous posts.

And in the United States, the FBI wants Congress to lower the legal threshold to access the private data of internet users.

But governments are not the only ones responsible for placing limits on online freedom, they say. Internet providers and other telecommunications corporations also play a role.

"Increasingly, we see governments push businesses and ask them to take actions that actually assist in government surveillance and censorship," Cynthia Wong said. "The way that companies decide to respond to these requests will have a huge impact on human rights."

Guerra points to the sale of sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure by NOKIA Siemans to Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The deal included equipment that allows law enforcement to monitor mobile phone calls and track the location of cell phone users.

But Google's Bob Boorstin says internet freedom is an imperfect thing and people should not think of the internet in idealistic terms.

"Our responsibility at Google is to do everything we can to maximize access to internet information and to promote freedom of expression, and I use that word carefully - maximize - because there's no such things as pure freedom of expression," he said.

In the past, the governments of Thailand and Turkey have threatened to shut down Google in their countries, if the search engine did not remove certain websites those governments deemed subversive.

Google refused Turkey's request, saying it was too extreme.

As a result, many of the search engine's popular service,s including YouTube, have been unavailable in Turkey since May.

Nevertheless, Boorstin says Google feels it has must often compromise with governments, on a case-by-case basis, or face being shut down in an entire country.

Human rights activist Roya Boroumand says she's uneasy with the compromises corporations make over internet freedom - but she adds the willingness of companies like Google to have a public conversation about it is a step in the right direction.

"Ten years ago we wouldn't have thought that large corporations would have a responsibility in this issue," she said. "Now, this man sits here and he's forced to speak with you and that's a positive sign."

Wong says China is perfecting its online surveillance systems on its citizens and is gradually closing up the internet as a place for free civil discourse.

She adds many countries are looking to China as a model for how to place those restrictions on their own people.

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