Establishing Global Internet Freedom: Tear Down This Firewall

作者: Christopher Cox 转自:


With nearly 10% of the world�s population online, and more gaining access each day, the Internet stands to become the most powerful engine for democratization and the free exchange of ideas ever invented. But this great advance in individual liberty is itself the target of authoritarian governments that are aggressively blocking and censoring the Internet. Those who resist these government controls face torture and imprisonment for accessing such �subversive� material as news from the Washington Post, the BBC, CNN, and the Voice of America.

The success of U.S. policy in support of the universal human rights of freedom of speech, press, and association requires new initiatives to defeat totalitarian controls over the Internet. If the benefits of the Internet can reach more and more people around the globe, then repressive governments will reform or fall as the citizenry gains the means to exchange views, to obtain information, and to let their voices be heard. To defend and promote freedom, the United States must speak forcefully in support of its expression on the Internet, work internationally to protect people�s Internet access, and direct international broadcasting resources to combat Internet jamming technologies.

Patterns of Global Abuse

Increasingly, non-democratic regimes around the world are denying their peoples unrestricted access to the Internet. Cuba, Laos, North Korea, the People�s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam are the most notorious violators of Internet freedom. These governments, according to the U.S. State Department and such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, are using methods of control that include denying their citizens access to the Internet, censoring content, banning private ownership of computers, and even making e-mail accounts so expensive that ordinary people cannot use them. These countries use firewalls, filters, and other devices to block and censor the Internet.

Monitoring of individual activity on the Internet is common. Repressive governments screen and read e-mail messages and message boards, searching for the use of particular words. Often, government censors simply block individuals from visiting unapproved websites. The development of �black lists� of users who visit websites for political, economic, financial, and religious news and information serves as a first step toward arrest and prosecution.

These are the most common ways in which authoritarian governments interfere with their citizens� access to the Internet:

Denying ISP access. Many governments in the Middle East and Asia retain monopoly control of Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This occurs most often in nations that maintain state control of telecommunications systems. This monopoly power enables governments to enforce restrictive policies over the people�s access to the Internet.

The Syrian government, for example, attempts to block access to servers that provide free e-mail services. According to the U.S. State Department, even foreign diplomats have had their telephone service disrupted because the lines were being used to access Internet providers outside the country.

In Cuba, the Castro government controls all access to the Internet, and all electronic mail messages are censored. Because access to computers is limited, the Internet can only be accessed through government-approved institutions.

In Burma, the Ministry of Defense operates the country�s only Internet server. Not surprisingly, according to the State Department, Internet services are being offered �selectively� to a �small number of customers.�

Censoring Internet content. Among the strictest enforcers of Internet censorship are Bahrain, China, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Yemen, each of which actively blocks web sites for government purposes. Although these governments often claim that their censorship is necessary for reasons such as protecting public morality, in each case the government controls clearly extend to stifling political dissent and opposition.

Censorship is typically conducted using proxy servers. By interposing the proxy server between the end user and the Internet�a task easily accomplished when the Internet Service Provider (ISP) is the government�the government can filter and block content.

In countries where individual access to the Internet is rare, government agents are assigned to monitor activity at Internet cafes, literally watching what sites customers visit. When unapproved Internet use becomes frequent, cafes can be closed, ostensibly for allowing Internet users to access �immoral� materials. In Saudi Arabia, where the government has closed a number of Internet cafes, those established for women have been specifically targeted as being used for �immoral purposes.�

Cost prohibitive pricing of e-mail accounts. In Cuba, where only 60,000 of the country�s 11 million people have Internet access, the low number of users is directly related to the Castro government�s prohibitively high taxes on e-mail accounts. The e-mail registration tax is $240�in a country with a per capita income of $1700. In Cuba and elsewhere, such prohibitively high taxes and fees are an effective means of ensuring that only a small minority will have the opportunity to use the Internet.

Banning personal computer ownership. The most dramatic Internet censorship is accomplished by outright government bans on personal computer ownership. In North Korea, dictator Kim Jong-Il has forbidden all servers or Internet connections to the outside world, thus making it the only country on Earth where the Internet does not exist. The few government websites that exist to distribute propaganda in foreign countries are hosted externally.

In March 2002, Castro�s government banned the sale of personal computers to the general public. Government decree 383/2001 bans the sale of �computers, offset printer equipment, mimeographs, photocopiers and any other mass printing medium� to �associations, foundations, civic and non-profit organizations and Cuban private individuals.�

The Violators

Burma. Reporters Without Borders reports that Internet use in Burma is available only to a select few. This limited Internet access is available only through the country�s one ISP, which is owned and operated by the Ministry of Defense. Internet use is constantly monitored by the Burmese defense ministry and intelligence services. Dissidents who are active on the web receive virus-infected messages from these government organizations. In December 1999, Burmese military personnel were arrested for �violating state secrets� by logging onto Burmanet, a Burmese opposition site.

All e-mails are screened by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), Burma�s national telecom operator. In January 2000, MPT banned all political texts and shared Internet accounts. Later in 2000, the Ministry of Communications barred all foreigners from using private e-mails, and required authorization before web pages can be created or modems and fax machines brought into Burma. Violation of these laws regarding Internet usage can result in up to 15 years in prison.

Cuba. All of Cuba�s Internet traffic is processed by one computer, where it is censored and access to most sites is blocked. Cuban citizens believe that the Cuban intelligence services monitor their e-mail, because messages from outside the country are received hours after being sent, or not at all. Although there is now a black market for e-mail addresses, they are only useful if the person has a computer�which must be reported to the government�thus rendering these illegal e-mail addresses useless.

Laos. According to the 2001 Reporters Without Borders �Enemies of the Internet� report, Internet use in Laos is extremely restricted: the government prohibits its citizens from publishing any information that could �damage the country�s unity and integrity.� Citizens and residents are denied access to sites in other countries that may include sources of �subversive information.� All Laotians who send and receive e-mails must first provide the government with their password, giving it the ability to intercept and read all e-mails.

The People�s Republic of China. In sheer volume, the PRC commits the most Internet abuses. The government seeks to retain control over the large and growing number of Internet users (33.7 million), mainland web sites (250,000), and Internet cafes (200,000). PRC authorities legally restrict and penalize access to any information on the Internet considered �subversive� or �critical� of the state. China�s Ministry of Information Industry regulates access to the Internet, while the Ministries of Public and State Security monitor its use.

On June 17, 2002, 20 Internet users burned to death in an Internet cafe. The owner reportedly locked the doors so that police could not arrest them for illegally using the Internet. The locked doors also trapped the people inside. After the fire, PRC authorities ordered all illegal Internet cafes closed. All non-government approved Internet cafes remain banned.

In recent years, the PRC government has stepped up its efforts to restrict Internet access. According to State Department�s Human Rights Report:

Despite the continued expansion of the Internet in the country, the Chinese government maintained its efforts to monitor and control content on the Internet.� The authorities block access to Web sites they find offensive. Authorities have at times blocked politically sensitive Web sites, including those of dissident groups and some major foreign news organizations, such as the VOA, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the BBC.

Dozens of Chinese citizens have been jailed for using the Internet for politics. The State Department reported that one such individual, Huang Qi, was �bound hand and foot and beaten by police while they tried to force him to confess to subversion.� Huang, the operator of an Internet site, posted information about missing persons, including students who disappeared in June 1989 in Tiananmen Square.

The Ministry for Information and Technology requires private ISPs to monitor information on the Internet. These new rules include recording information about users (such as their Internet access IDs, their postal addresses, and their telephone numbers) who visit �strategic and sensitive� web sites including the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

The Ministry also requires that ISPs install software to monitor and copy the contents of �sensitive� e-mail messages. Under this directive, ISPs must interrupt the transfer of e-mails containing �subversive� content which pose a threat to �national security and unity.� Authors of such e-mail messages must be reported to the Ministry of Information and Technology, the Ministry of Law and Order, and the State Secrets Bureau. The State Department notes that �Internet entrepreneurs have complained that Government regulations controlling the Internet were so broadly written that MSS (Ministry of State Security) officials could find any Web page operator or e-commerce merchant guilty of violating regulations.�

The State Department found that, although e-mail is difficult to block, the PRC �attempts to do so by, at times, blocking all e-mail from overseas Internet service providers used by dissident groups, and by filtering and tracking individual e-mail accounts.� It also found that Chinese citizens who supply large numbers of e-mail addresses to organizations abroad have been prosecuted. Forwarding dissident e-mail messages to others is illegal.

Reporters Without Borders has reported that �about 20 provinces now have special police brigades trained in pursuing �subversive� Internet users.� Currently, 22 �cyberdissidents� are in prison for trying to break through this Internet repression and censorship. According to the State Department, in April 2001, Guo Qinghai was given a 4-year sentence for posting pro-democracy material on the Internet. That same month, Wang Sen was detained in Dachuan, Sichuan Province for posting articles alleging the resale of Red Cross-donated tuberculosis medicine. And, in June 2001, police detained Li Hongmin in Hunan province for distributing copies of the Tiananmen Papers over the Internet.

On May 16, 2002, the PRC Arts Ministry announced that students and other persons under the age of 16 will only be allowed into Internet cafes during school holidays, for a maximum of three hours�and only if they are accompanied by a teacher. On the same day, the PRC announced that it had �unblocked� access to a select number of international sites, but access to other sites including VOA, the BBC, and Time magazine was still blocked.

Syria. The sole ISP in Syria is the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, a government-run source which blocks access to �offensive� content and all pro-Israeli sites. The government is able to copy and monitor e-mails because of its control of the service provider. In December 2000, for example, the Syrian government detained an individual without charge for forwarding a political cartoon via e-mail. In order for Syrians to connect to the Internet, a government technician must come to their home, install the software, and assign the user�s password�information that the government retains.

Tunisia. Every one of the five Internet service providers in Tunisia is under government control. The Tunisian Internet Agency, created in 1996, regularly provides the names of subscribers to the government. Web sites and on-line publications in Tunisia that contain information critical of the government are frequently blocked, according to the State Department. Among the websites blacklisted by the Tunisian government is, not surprisingly, a report on Internet use in Tunisia by Human Rights Watch.

Vietnam. The one Internet access provider in Vietnam is owned and operated by the Communist government. In August 2001, the Prime Minister of Vietnam issued a decree prohibiting use of the Internet �for the purpose of hostile actions against the country or to destabilize security, violate morality, or violate other laws and regulations.�

Although the Internet is nominally available to anyone who wants to use it, the exceptionally high prices severely restrict usage. The Vietnamese government monitors the sites visited, and uses firewalls to block �politically [and] culturally inappropriate� websites.

The government is seeking additional authority to monitor Internet cafes and hold the owners of these cafes responsible for customer use of the Internet. This legislation would affect all of the nearly 4,000 Internet cafes in Vietnam.

Yemen. Internet access in Yemen is severely limited by prohibitively high prices of equipment and Internet subscriptions. Although officials say the Yemeni government does not block political sites,, the Yemeni national Opposition Front�s website, was blocked by the government, and has now ceased operation completely.

Defeating the Censors

The private sector, including for-profit corporations and non-governmental organizations, is developing and employing various techniques and technologies such as proxy servers, intermediaries, �mirrors,� and encryption to overcome state efforts to deny freedom of the Internet. But the U.S. government has thus far commenced only modest steps to fund and deploy these technologies to defeat Internet censorship. To date, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have budgeted a total of only $1 million for technology to counter PRC Internet jamming using technology including �Triangle Boy,� produced by SafeWeb. While this technology has been successful in allowing Chinese citizens to freely access the Internet�receiving 100,000 electronic hits per day from users in China�its funding has expired. SafeWeb has also provided a free service to the people of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Due to the $50,000 per month cost of bandwidth to serve each country, however, the firm has discontinued service to both countries. At the time that SafeWeb discontinued service, it was receiving millions of hits per month from these two countries. Yet VOA and RFA must rely upon such technologies to ensure access to their programming. Other technologies and products, including Peek-a-Booty, DynaWeb, and Freenet-China (the latter a peer-to-peer network), are also currently in use to help keep information flowing in and out of areas where Internet censorship and jamming are prevalent.

A Policy for Global Internet Freedom

Congress and the Bush Administration must adopt an effective and robust global Internet freedom policy. The federal government should enlist the help of the private sector in this effort, so that the many current technologies used commercially for securing business transactions and providing virtual meeting space can be used to promote democracy and freedom.

To bring to bear the pressure of the free world on repressive governments guilty of Internet censorship, the United States should:

--Direct substantial international broadcasting resources to a global effort to defeat Internet jamming and censorship.

--Establish an Office of Global Internet Freedom within the International Broadcasting Bureau to develop and implement a strategy for defeating Internet jamming.

--Formally declare that all people have the right to communicate freely with others on the Internet.

--Formally declare that all people have the right to unrestricted access to news and information on the Internet.

--Publicly and prominently denounce state-directed practices of restricting, censoring, banning, and blocking access to information on the Internet.

--Submit a resolution at next year�s U.N. Human Rights Commission annual meeting in Geneva condemning all nations practicing Internet censorship and denying freedom to access information.

--Compile and publish an annual report on countries that pursue policies of Internet censorship, blocking, and other abuses.


The Internet, originally a U.S. technology, is creating economic prosperity around the world. The value of the Internet, however, must not be limited to money. The Internet has the potential to expand political dialogue and global communication beyond anything that could have been dreamed of throughout history. To ensure that this invaluable advancement in human freedom and knowledge is not subverted by authoritarian governments, the United States must aggressively defend global Internet freedom. This policy must include far more aggressive measures to deploy technologies to defeat Internet censors, and to organize international support for the right of the peoples of the world to have unrestricted access to information and communication on the Internet. The future of human rights, democracy, and freedom throughout the world depend upon it.