Authoritarian-minded states in Central Asia and the Caucasus are expanding efforts to restrict access to the Internet, according to a top US State Department official. In response, the United States is funding the development of new technologies to circumvent unwanted controls, sponsoring training programs for Internet activists, and launching diplomatic initiatives to build “a global coalition of governments committed to advancing Internet freedom.”
Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, described ensuring the free flow of information on the Internet as a core mission of US diplomacy, one that “derives from universal and cherished rights—the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.” He made the comments during a July 15 hearing, titled “Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region,” held by the US Helsinki Commission in Washington, DC. The commission, an independent US government agency, monitors compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe commitments.
Bear deflected efforts by some commission members to get him to name names. But he indicated that several Central Asian states were among the worst web meddlers. “Internet censorship further aggravates the constraints on freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms that impede progress and development in the Central Asian states,” he said.
When pressed, Baer also cited Turkey, Russia and Azerbaijan as problem spots. He rapped officials in Moscow and Baku for using a variety of repressive tactics, including the physical harassment and prosecution of bloggers who write on sensitive subjects. Turkey, meanwhile, is drawing US criticism for its attempt to implement a broad plan to filter Internet content.
In Azerbaijan, authorities monitored the Internet communications of the organizers of this spring’s anti-government demonstrations. “Several of these activists – presumably identified from internet postings as organizers – were detained or imprisoned following these events,” Baer noted.
Rafal Rohozinski, a senior scholar at the University of Toronto’s Canada Center for Global Security Studies, told members of the Helsinki Commission that governments are becoming more subtle in their attempts to censor the Internet. Rohozinski noted a rise in the use of denial-of-service attacks, in which a website is flooded with content requests thus incapacitating it. Some government’s also are resorting to systematic hacking and the use of malware against websites operated by rights organizations and political opposition groups, Rohozinski said.
As it promotes Internet freedom, Baer said the US government was “particularly grateful for the tireless efforts of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Ms. Dunja Mijatovic, and her dedicated staff.” In a report released July 8, Mijatovic asserted that Internet access should be considered a fundamental human right. “Some governments already recognize access to the Internet as a human right. This trend should be supported as a crucial element of media freedom in the 21st century,” Mijatovic said at a news conference unveiling the report. [Click here to read the full report].
Mijatovic, who testified at the July 15 hearing in Washington, DC, cited problems with the existing body of regulations, including the use of vague terms that give the authorities the broad ability to suppress legitimate Internet communications. She also criticized governments for excessively restricting Internet access on security grounds: “There is no security without free media and free expression, and no free expression and free media without security,” she said. Mijatovic called on other OSCE governments to follow the examples of Finland and Estonia and define Internet access as a fundamental human right and constitutional freedom.
Another witness at the July 15 hearing, David Kramer, president of the watchdog organization Freedom House, said American tech companies could help promote global free speech by better assessing whether technology sales can assist foreign governments in curtailing Internet access. Kramer called for the establishment of an export control framework for web-related technologies that can be used to filter, or otherwise restrict access to Internet content.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.