In many ways, Thailand is a beacon of high technology, with a huge computer-component industry and a vibrant online culture. But when you log onto the Web in its capital city of Bangkok, sites often load excruciatingly slowly. It’s not for any lack of broadband access. It’s because over the past five years, the Thai government has instituted firewalls and blocking policies that have strangled Internet speed.
The country currently bans as many as 100,000 websites for posting content allegedly offensive to the Thai king. (The country is a constitutional monarchy, with a democratically elected parliament, but the king actually enjoys enormous political clout.) Web masters are thrown in jail for being too slow to remove comments criticizing the government from their sites. Just to make sure its citizens don’t discuss the monarchy freely, the country maintains a 24-hour Internet monitoring war room, filled with Web spies who troll the Internet looking for anyone who violates the country’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
It may seem surprising that this massive filtering and blocking effort would be taking place in one of the more open and democratic nations in Asia. But Thailand is hardly unique in this regard. The world, and leaders of democratic nations, may associate Internet censorship with highly authoritarian states like China, North Korea, and some of the Middle Eastern nations where unrest has spread in the past year. But in fact a growing and little-appreciated threat to Internet freedom may actually come from democracies themselves.
India has increased filtering and monitoring of the Internet, and South Korea is jailing bloggers who write favorably — even in jest — about North Korea. Turkey is blocking many categories of sites as well. In the “Internet Enemies Report 2012,” the monitoring and advocacy group Reporters without Borders noted that eight of the 15 most serious offenders — countries with the most severe Internet restrictions — were electoral democracies. “Supposedly democratic countries . . . set a bad example by yielding to the temptation to prioritize security over other concerns” online, the group noted.
Electoral democracies do not normally clamp down on the Internet simply to prevent dissent, the way autocratic regimes like China or Myanmar do (though in Thailand’s case, that is part of the rationale). They more often crack down to fight terrorism, protect national security, and combat offensive and hateful content. But the result of these clampdowns can be severe, with online writers or bloggers being arrested — and, compared to openly repressive regimes such as China or North Korea, their effects may be more insidious.
Where these countries have a history of supporting free speech and freedom of the press, the crackdown on the Web as it emerges as our newest and most vibrant public square represents a significant step backward. In some cases, as in Turkey, clampdowns on freedom on the Web may portend greater clampdowns on all types of freedom of the press and expression. As the Internet becomes the predominant way people publish and share news and information, censorship threatens the innovation that has been a hallmark of these electoral democracies. And, perhaps most disturbing, the crackdowns mean that even as democracies try to insist that authoritarian governments lower their firewalls and honor free expression, they are losing any moral authority on the issue by abandoning that ideal themselves.
WHEN THE INTERNET first began to be widely used around the world in the early 2000s, it was largely left unmolested by most electoral democracies. Authoritarian leaders, however, quickly took note of the Web’s potential power — for example, the way activists using the Web helped organize protests in the “color revolutions” in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the early and mid-2000s. Throughout the 2000s, the most authoritarian nations launched comprehensive efforts to monitor and filter the Internet, or simply cut off Internet access entirely, as China did two years ago in the restive province of Xinjiang, following riots between ethnic Uighurs and ethnic Chinese there. For over six months, Internet access was shut down throughout Xinjiang, a province roughly the size of Western Europe.
Other authoritarian nations, like Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Vietnam, copied many of China’s tactics. They passed laws harshly regulating Internet usage and mandating jail times for certain types of online political remarks, used denial of service attacks to disable opposition websites and bloggers, and employed state security agents to monitor the Web and search for online dissidents.
The response among Internet activists and many democratic leaders was, not surprisingly, critical. They argued that the Internet was part of the public sphere, and that activity on the Web should therefore be protected under the same rules — freedom of the press, freedom of assembly — that held sway in the real world. Under President Obama, the State Department has even made Internet freedom part of its agenda in advocating for global human rights. “After all, the right to express one’s views, practice one’s faith, peacefully assemble with others to pursue political or social change — these are all rights to which all human beings are entitled, whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an Internet chat room,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last year during a conference in the Netherlands on Internet freedom. Other developed democracies launched similar efforts.
Most of these monitoring efforts and online freedom promotion projects have focused, predictably, on overtly repressive countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. But recently a new set of countries has begun to creep onto their radar. In Turkey, for example, the government has been banning websites related to Kurdish issues, as well as those that criticize Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The Turkish government also recently launched a centralized filtering system. Meanwhile, India, the world’s biggest democracy, has increasingly requested that Google remove “offensive” user-generated content under the banner of its “IT Rules of 2011” legislation passed last April. This legislation opened the door for both criminal and civil complaints against Internet firms that host such objectionable content; in January, during proceedings of a civil suit against 22 firms (including Google and Facebook), a judge asked the defendants to develop filtering mechanisms “like China.” India has also increased Internet surveillance, supposedly to hunt for terrorists, since the 2008 Mumbai bombing.
Meanwhile, over the past five years, Thailand’s government has boosted its censorship of any negative comments about the palace; royalists in government and the military fear growing public sentiment against the powerful monarchy as the country prepares for a succession in the near future. Criticism of the king has long been illegal in Thailand, but recently the censorship has grown so broad that it has become a weapon against any political opponents, according to many Thai academics and writers. The government now is pursuing a case against the editor of Prachatai.com, probably the most respected news site in the country, for not deleting comments made by readers on the site quickly enough; she could face up to 50 years in jail. According to Reporters without Borders, Internet freedom in Thailand could soon be curtailed even more sharply than in its neighbor Myanmar, long one of the harshest places for Web users.
In South Korea, another vibrant democracy and economic powerhouse, the government in 2011 stepped up suppression of online discussion of neighboring North Korea. According to NorthKoreaTech, a blog that tracks online filtering and other tech issues in the region, the South Korean government has dramatically increased its number of content removal requests — from roughly 1,500 per year in 2009 to over 80,000 in 2010. The government has shut down more than 70 websites for allegedly pro-North Korea content, while also arresting online writers and tweeters for supposedly celebrating North Korean leaders, even when the writers said their content was satirical. Last year, the United Nations’ rapporteur for free expression warned that South Korea’s Internet policies were a “subject of great concern.”
Even Australia and France, two of the oldest democracies, are not immune. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for criminal charges to be filed against anyone who frequently looks at a website that calls for hatred or violence, an idea that stands to gain momentum from public outrage over the recent killings of soldiers and Jewish students by a gunman. Australia’s government is pushing to create a national content-filtering system, which would block child pornography and other content deemed “objectionable” by the government. But with “objectionable” left undefined, the content filtering “often results in over-blocking . . . [dragging] into its net websites or pages whose content has nothing to do with that which is covered by the law,” notes Reporters without Borders.
THE EFFECTS OF THESE clampdowns already are being felt beyond the bloggers and writers being shut down or put in jail. In Thailand, many Web entrepreneurs and online news journalists privately say that it has become increasingly hard to find investment and staff for their ventures, since so many Thais are afraid of falling foul of the Computer Crimes Act — and since many find it hard to do business at the slow speed of an Internet with so many blocks. Similarly, some South Korean academics worry that the stepped up prosecution of bloggers and writers may chill the country’s vibrant IT industry, and could be a deterrent to foreign investment.
This repression is also damaging beyond these countries’ borders, in part because they’ve been seen as models for good governance in their regions. Turkey, especially, is often cited as a success story for how to build a secular democracy within an Islamic society. But Turkey’s Web blocks — 15,596 sites and counting — raise the question of what kind of example it sets for nations in the Arab uprising. And tough Internet surveillance laws weaken the moral standing of democracies on this issue: When Australia, France, or India criticize China for its massive firewalling, Beijing can simply point out that they might want to take a look at the direction their own policies are moving.
Along with Reporters without Borders, some leading sites such as Google have launched their own internal think tanks designed to promote Internet freedom, both in electoral democracies and beyond, and to help people struggling with Internet curbs find ways to get around them. Meanwhile, in countries like Australia and France, activists who originally had mostly ignored some of the new legislation, since it seemed focused on hate speech and other offensive speech, now are rallying to try to defeat the bills. These critics argue that such laws would allow too much censorship, and that they may also damage industries, like video gaming, that will be caught in their net. In Australia, this pushback has helped delay the implementation of the law.
In the broadest gambit, activists from both electoral democracies and authoritarian nations have come together, at the United Nations and other forums, to argue that open speech on the Internet should be seen as a human right. A handful of nations, including Finland and Estonia, have already enshrined Internet access itself as a human right. Now, activist groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology, a leading advocacy group, are taking this campaign farther, arguing online, at conferences, and in the media that the “internationally recognized right to freedom of expression should apply to the Internet.” In other words, when it comes to political speech, it’s time for the world to acknowledge that the Internet is no different from any other space in the public sphere.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Elizabeth Leader is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.