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Sleepwalking Toward a Control Society? Ten Must-Know Trends



1. "Free internet is dead" - global conditions of control has been established

Boundaries of surveillance and censorship have changed during the history of Internet. The idealism of Internet as a separate open and free space labeled the beginning of the Internet era in mid 1990s. Up until the end of the decade most states either ignored online activities or regulated them very lightly. Since the beginning of 2000s development turned towards continuous increase in forms of control which also became more subtle and nuanced. (Deibert et al. 2011).

Censorship and data surveillance have become a globally accepted condition. In 2010, more than 60 countries censored the Internet, and many countries have passed a law that sets restrictions on citizens and media's freedom of expression (Reporters Without Borders 2011). Targeting of control to individuals has also improved, since several states require identification, licensing or registration from the users on the Internet (Palfrey 2010). In many countries even the protection mechanisms of users, like encryption, are reduced to prevent users protect their communications (La Rue 2011).

Different forms of control are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication around the world, and both in democratic countries and authoritarian states (Bitso & Fourie & Bothma 2012). Although Arab Spring indicated that Internet and social networks can be efficiently used also as vehicles for freedom, repressive regimes soon responded with tougher measures of control. Internet content filtering is still growing, but Internet surveillance is growing even more and getting more intrusive. (Reporters Without Borders 2012)

Internet control has taken various forms and measures in different countries. Reasons for censorship, methods of control, censoring parties and sanctions about the exceeded limits differ largely. Severity of the conditions the control mechanisms develop varies from pervasive forms control and heavy sanctioning of violations in totalitarian countries to milder forms of censorship and permissiveness of the critics of controls, which often takes place in western democracies. Legal framework, state of Internet infrastructure, level of economic development and the quality of governance seem as key factors in determining how models of internet control are implemented. (Bitso & Fourie & Bothma 2012)

The presently strictest and large-scale structures of control are in China. Using China as an extreme example, Jevgeni Morozov, in his important book The Net Illusion, shows how dictatorships effectively use the net against their citizens. China has hired 20.000 cyber police officers to observe the citizens' use of the net. "Human search engines" literally go and get the opponents of the regime from their homes to be held liable for their words. An elderly villager once criticized the government on the net for polluting a river, and he was fetched from his home and forced to take responsibility for his words. (Morozov 2011)

In Europe, the most recent countries that have fallen back on censorship are Hungary and Turkey. In Turkey, all Internet users were obliged to use a mandatory net filter. Only 22.000 of the total 11.5 million net users have adopted it. (Reporters Without Borders 2012)

Governments are the most important enforcer of internet censorship (Bitso & Fourie & Bothma 2012). However, vast part of the cyberspace is owned and operated by private sector; when governments want to extend their control over the Internet, they have placed greater demands on private sector actors to police and secure communications (Deibert, 2012). Accordingly, many of the censoring and surveillance efforts are based on public-private partnerships. Also, private companies have significant power on the Internet due to their size: Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon are among the private multinational corporations which are major players on the Internet (Hamilton & Moon 2012).

There is no clear division between totalitarian and democratic countries, or between intentions of public and private sector actors in relation to the outcomes of their censoring efforts. The public-private censorship partnerships have produced large-scale structures of control, but also companies from democratic countries have worked for the totalitarian governments. The Great Firewall in China has been built up by the support of major western ICT-companies, including Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google (BBC News 2010). In Europe, it has appeared that ICT-companies have sold surveillance technology to human rights-violating governments in countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran. These technologies have been used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders, and political opponents, but they may have been employed to monitor entire populations. (Privacy International 2011a)

Overall, the major players of Internet whether they are government bodies or private parties, have proofed that they have power to close or open the doors into the networked environment and its' services, if they wish so (Hamilton & Moon 2012). Whether this is done in a long run to the benefit of the civil society and to support freedom of information or against it, still remains as an open question - so far the political will has changed in different cases.