Dictatorships get to grips with Web 2.0

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) just released their Annual Press Freedom Survey.

Executive summary of the internet-related part: New technologies, encryption and Web 2.0 have made it easier for dissidents, journalists and other ordinary folks to have secure conversations and get the word out. However, dictatorships are catching up: Partly by adapting said new technologies, partly by cutting deals with the big player web companies such as Google, Skype and Yahoo, who sadly seem to be much more cooperative than one would assume.

Here’s some of the key findings of the report:

New technology allows [cyber-dissidents and journalists] to receive and share news out of sight of the authorities. The Web is also a blessing for human rights groups, which can now build a file on a political prisoner with a few mouseclicks instead of over weeks and sometimes months.The Web makes networking much easier, for political activists as well as teenagers. Unfortunately, this progress and use of new tools by activists is now being matched by the efforts of dictatorships to fight them. Dictators too have entered the world of Web 2.0.

However, snooping is easy, and done regularly:

The Internet was not designed to protect message confidentiality. It is fast and fairly reliable but also easy to spy on and censor. From the first mouse-click, users leave a trail and reveal information about themselves and what their tastes and habits are.This data is very valuable to commercial firms, who sort through it to target their advertising better. The police also use it.The best way to spy on journalists a few years ago was still to send a plainclothes officer to stand outside their house.This can be done more cheaply and efficiently now, because machines can spy, report back and automatically prevent subversive conversations.

… and all with the help of the big players:

Internet users are organising themselves and conjuring up new solutions to tackle these dictatorships, get round the filters and protect their anonymity.They use and create new technology, encrypt their email and use other tools that are still not detected by cyber-police. The Web phone service Skype, for example, has made it much easier for journalists – and Reporters Without Borders – to communicate with their sources. It works especially well because it is encrypted and so conversations are hard to tap. But China has already signed an agreement with Skype to block key-words, so how can we be sure our conversations are not being listened to? How do we know if Skype will not also allow (or already has allowed) the Chinese police to spy on its customers?

Everybody should have heard about Google censoring their search results in China. Same goes for Yahoo. Cisco has been blamed for providing special hardware to Chinese police forces to spy on web users (see my old post here). About Skype I didn’t know. It does seem kind of odd that a company that’s based on distributed peer-to-peer computing and encrypted conversation would agree to help authoritarian regimes to interfere with their services…

It has become vital to examine new technology from a moral standpoint and understand the secondary effects of it. If firms and democratic countries continue to duck the issue and pass off ethical responsibility on others, we shall soon be in a world where all our communications are spied on.

I deeply agree.

Link to the full report, Link to the internet-related summary (via)