About one-third of the world's population has access to the Internet. In cyber-speak, that means there are currently more than 2 billion netizens, or people active on the World Wide Web.
But not everyone enjoys the same degree of online access and freedom.
RWB's 2012 Enemies of the Internet
- North Korea
- Saudi Arabia
Delphine Halgand, Washington, D.C. director of Reporters Without Borders, says Internet censorship is an issue in more countries than ever before.
"Last year will be remembered as one of unprecedented violence against netizens," she says. "Five netizens were killed while engaging in reporting activities and nearly 200 arrests of bloggers and netizens were reported in 2011, which is a 30 percent increase on 2010."
According to its Internet freedoms report released Monday, the group says about 120 people are currently imprisoned because of online activities, and 12 countries as are identified as "enemies of the Internet." They are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
"These countries are combining drastic content filtering with access restrictions, but they also track their cyber dissidents," she says. "I think that they will monitor what is happening online and use this surveillance information to arrest opponents who are expressing themselves online."
Another 14 countries make the 2011 Reporters Without Borders' watch list, nations, including several major democracies, that exhibit signs of Internet restrictions or repression.
Australia, for example, which has been on the watch list since 2009, presses Internet service providers to voluntarily block sites that show child pornography and sexual abuse, while officials in Canberra are discussing a mandatory filtering system.
An official government statement says "some content has no place in a civilized society," and in 2010, communications minister Stephen Conroy told parliament the filter would block only material already banned on television, at magazine stands, and in book and video stores.
Although the Internet is a new distribution platform, Conroy said, it should be held to the same standards Australians apply to other media platforms.
But Reporters Without Borders is concerned that Australian officials might filter Web content by using overly broad criteria in a non-transparent manner.
India, the world's most populous democracy, also made the watch list.
"We observed that Indian authorities have stepped up Internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, even if, at the same time, authorities publicly reject accusations of censorship," says Halgand.
According to Internet search engine giant Google, the Indian government submitted 67 requests to have 282 items of content removed in the second half of 2010, about 80 percent of which company officials refused to comply with on the grounds that items, many of which were YouTube videos criticizing Indian officials, didn't violate Google's content standards or local laws.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke passionately about Internet freedom at a conference last December in the Netherlands, has called securing peoples' rights in cyberspace an urgent task.
"As people increasingly turn to the Internet to conduct important aspects of their lives, we have to make sure that human rights are as respected online as offline," she said.
In the same speech, Clinton noted that the number of people on the Internet will more than double during the next 20 years, more than 1 billion of whom will be logging on from repressive countries.
Recently, the state-run Pakistani Telecommunications Authority published a request for proposals to companies worldwide for what it called the “deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System”. That would establish in a similar fashion to China's Golden Shield, or "Great Firewall of China".
That proposal has drawn in attention of free speech groups, including the San Francisco based Committee to Protect Journalists. VOA’s Ira Mellman spoke with Danny O’Brien, CPJ’s Internet Advocacy Coordinator.