21 August 2009 by Jim Giles
WHEN thousands of protestors took to the streets in Iran following this year’s disputed presidential election, Twitter messages sent by activists let the world know about the brutal policing that followed. A few months earlier, campaigners in Moldova used Facebook to organise protests against the country’s communist government, and elsewhere too the internet is playing an increasing role in political dissent.
Now governments are trying to regain control. By reinforcing their efforts to monitor activity online, they hope to deprive dissenters of information and the ability to communicate.
The latest evidence of these clampdowns comes in a report on the Middle East and north Africa by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of researchers based in the UK and North America. Among the restrictions it reports are clampdowns on Facebook in Syria and the use of hidden cameras in Saudi Arabia’s internet cafes.
Most of these actions are aimed at stifling political debate. “Political filtering is the common denominator,” says Helmi Noman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Boston, who compiled the report. “It’s the main target.”
Noman asked volunteers to check whether roughly 2000 sites covering a range of subjects, including gambling, political news and humour, are accessible in various countries. He also examined government eavesdropping schemes and the actions of local law enforcers.
The survey showed that governments in the Middle East and north Africa routinely block sites that host discussions critical of their policies or that cover human rights issues. Opposition parties’ sites are also censored.
At times entire social networking services, including Twitter, are unavailable, and the same goes for the YouTube video-sharing site. Orkut, a social networking site, is offline in the United Arab Emirates. The BBC Persian site cannot be accessed from Iran. The governments’ task of blocking internet access is made easier because many countries in the region have only a handful of service providers.
Governments also keep tabs on who is using the internet and what they are viewing. In March, newspapers in Saudi Arabia reported that police had started visiting internet cafes to ensure that owners had installed cameras to monitor users, as the country’s law requires. In Jordan, cafe owners have to record their customers’ names and monitor the sites they visit.
Noman says that filtering and monitoring have become more widespread as the internet’s role in political activity has increased. “More activists are going online and more activists are being created online,” he says.