MIT Technology Review reports on Internet-filtering technology being used by countries to censor their citizens in Syria and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Countries such as China have been finding ways to block their citizens from Web sites banned by the government. There have been stories about the “Great Firewall of China” and how its citizens seek to circumvent the Internet restrictions. A couple of years ago, China sought to require censorship software be preinstalled on computers sold in the country; that effort failed, but the government continues to seek other ways to censor citizens online. In May, there was a report that “a powerful arm of China’s government said Wednesday that it had created a new central agency to regulate every corner of the nation’s vast Internet community, a move that appeared to complement a continuing crackdown on political dissidents and other social critics.”
Access to the Internet is considered a “fundamental human right” by some people. In a 2010 survey by the BBC World Service, 79% of respondents agreed that Internet access is a fundamental right. France and Estonia have declared that Internet access is their citizens’ right, according to the BBC. This year, the United Nations declared it a basic human right in a “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (UN pdf; archive pdf). The report states:
[T]he recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States. […]
The right to privacy is essential for individuals to express themselves freely. Indeed, throughout history, people’s willingness to engage in debate on controversial subjects in the public sphere has always been linked to possibilities for doing so anonymously. The Internet allows individuals to access information and to engage in public debate without having to reveal their real identities, for example through the use of pseudonyms on message boards and chat forums. Yet, at the same time, the Internet also presents new tools and mechanisms through which both State and private actors can monitor and collect information about individuals’ communications and activities on the Internet. Such practices can constitute a violation of the Internet users’ right to privacy, and, by undermining people’s confidence and security on the Internet, impede the free flow of information and ideas online.
In this context, the latest news is troubling. MIT Technology Review reports:
A company whose Internet-filtering servers were recently found to have been used by Syria’s regime for censorship is facing a new research report that Myanmar, too, uses its technology—and that the Syrian use is wider than acknowledged.
The findings released today by the Citizen Lab, an Internet research center at the University of Toronto, are the latest evidence that commercial technology from the West—in this case from Blue Coat of Sunnyvale, California—is often used by repressive regimes, says Ron Deibert, the lab’s director, who posted the findings today in a blog.
“Prior research by our group, and others like it, have highlighted the growing market for censorship, surveillance, and even offensive computer network attack products and services,” Deibert says. “It is distressing that many, but not all, of the companies that sell this technology are based in liberal democratic regimes.”
A spokesman for Blue Coat, Steve Schick, said he hadn’t seen the report and pointed to the company’s October statement about the Syrian matter. The company said in that instance that its technology made its way to Damascus by means of an “improper transfer.” […]
As for the new report on Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), “this is the first it’s really been raised,” Schick said. He added that the company was starting an investigation into whether its products were used by the government. Blue Coat says its primary customers are corporate networks that seek to filter the Internet to protect themselves.
Both Syria and Myanmar are known for serious human-rights violations and are subject to U.S. trade embargoes. In Syria, the United Nations says that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 3,500 people over the course of the citizen uprising that has gone on for eight months. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Blue Coat’s technology was used to help the government block or log Syrians’ attempts to connect to facebook.com/syrian.revolution and other sites related to protests against the government.