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Internet restrictions, government secrecy and communications surveillance have reached an unprecedented level across the world.

A year-long study of Internet censorship in more than 50 countries found that a sharp escalation in control of the Internet since September 2001 may have outstripped the traditional ability of the medium to repel restrictions.

The report fires a broadside at the United States and the United Kingdom for creating initiatives hostile to Internet freedom.

Those countries have "led a global attack on free speech on the Internet" and "set a technological and regulatory standard for mass surveillance and control" of the Net, the report by London-based Privacy International and the GreenNet Educational Trust argues.

The 70,000 word report, Silenced, is launched today (Friday, September 19) at the preparatory meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.

The study, undertaken through a collaboration of more than 50 experts and advocates throughout the world and funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute, found that censorship of the Internet is commonplace in most regions of the world.

The 9/11 effect

The report says: "It is clear that in most countries over the past two years there has been an acceleration of efforts to either close down or inhibit the Internet. In some countries, for example in China and Burma, the level of control is such that the Internet has relatively little value as a medium for organised free speech, and its use could well create additional dangers at a personal level for activists".

"The September 11, 2001 attacks have given numerous governments the opportunity to promulgate restrictive policies that their citizens had previously opposed. There has been an acceleration of legal authority for additional snooping, from increased email monitoring to the retention of Web logs and communications data. Simultaneously, governments have become more secretive about their own activities, reducing information that was previously available and refusing to adhere to policies on freedom of information".

In finding a substantial level of censorship in many countries, the report condemns the complicity of Western nations. "Governments of developing nations rely on Western countries to supply them with the necessary technologies of surveillance and control, such as digital wiretapping equipment, deciphering equipment, scanners, bugs, tracking equipment and computer intercept systems. The transfer of surveillance technology from first to third world is now a lucrative sideline for the arms industry. Without the aid of this technology transfer, it is unlikely that non-democratic regimes could impose the current levels of control over Internet activity."

Corporates adopt 'Big Brother' tactics

One of the most important trends in recent years is the growth of multinational corporate censors. The report says: "It is arguable that in the first decade of the 21st century, corporations will rival governments in threatening Internet freedoms. Aggressive protection of corporate intellectual property has resulted in substantial legal action against users, and a corresponding deterioration in trust across the Internet".

The report notes numerous instances where Internet users have been jailed by authorities for posting or hosting political material. Such countries include Egypt, China and a number of Middle Eastern countries where the Internet is tightly controlled and heavily monitored.

The Internet is a fragile and easily controlled medium, the report argues. In Africa, governments in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe "have at times literally shut it down". The Saudi government over a period of just three months blocked access to more than 400,000 websites that were regarded as immoral.

According to the report, a wide variety of methods are used to restrict and/or regulate Internet access. These include: applying draconian laws and licenses, content filtering, tapping and surveillance, pricing and taxation policies, telecommunication markets manipulation, hardware and software manipulation and self-censorship.

Ray of light

The study does however report some positive developments. "Countries have established protections, companies have fought for the rights of privacy of individuals, technologies have sustained the ability of dissident groups to speak freely and access content privately. Differences in national laws have sheltered the speech of the oppressed. Technological developments are being implemented to protect a free Internet, but the knowledge gap between radical innovators and restrictive institutions appears to be closing".

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International and one of the report's editors, said: "It is clear that democratic nations such as the US and the UK have failed to set an acceptable benchmark for free speech. Non-democratic regimes look to the West for technologies and techniques of repression".

"The report sounds a warning that we must move quickly to preserve the remaining freedoms on the Internet before they are systematically extinguished".

Silenced is available on the Privacy International website here. ®

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